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The Syrian Conundrum

Stanly Johny is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • February 14, 2012

    “I guess you killed 7,000 people there,” a Lebanese businessman once said to Rifaat al-Assad, the younger brother of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, referring to the Hama massacre of 1982. Rifaat was the commanding general of the Hama operation in which Syrian troops, under order from President Hafez, massacred scores of people to quell a Sunni rebellion against the Baathist regime. Normally a politician will play down such a ghastly incident. But Rifaat’s response was rather surprising. “What are you talking about, 7000?” He said to the businessman. “No, no. We killed 38,000.” This conversation, cited in Thomas Friedman’s award-winning book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, offers a complete picture of how President Hafez put down the rebellion in Hama.

    Three decades later, his son Bashar al-Assad is facing a much graver danger. A number of cities are revolting against his government. Bashar’s attempts to emulate his father by suppressing the protests by force have so far been counter-productive. The rebels are armed and are now gaining momentum in some cities such as Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Bashar’s former ally, Turkey, is now leading an international campaign against his government. The Arab League has virtually forsaken him. The West is aggressively pursuing a regime change agenda. Anyone who watches Syria closely would agree that the regime appears weaker now. Bashar was offered a lifeline on February 4 when Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution that, if approved, would have asked him to step aside and make way for a democratically elected unity government.

    The Syrian scene is not as simple as the Tunisian and Egyptian scenes where non-violent popular protests brought down dictators. In Egypt, people across the political, ethnic and religious spectrum participated in the anti-Mubarak protests. When demonstrations swelled in streets, the army asked the president to go instead of shooting down the people. The Tunisian story is not much different from Egypt’s. The fall of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak set off a wave of protests across the Arab street, although their causes and nature varied from country to country. In Libya, the anti-Gadhafi protests were concentrated in the Eastern provinces, especially in Benghazi. Unlike the Tunisian or Egyptian upsurge, the Libyan revolt was largely violent and it took months to overthrow Gadhafi through a bloody campaign, thanks to NATO intervention.

    Like in Libya, Syria has also seen the eruption of violent protests in certain parts of the country where the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is traditionally strong. The Brothers’ opposition to the regime is not something new. Ever since Hafez’s “revolution” in 1970, Syria, a Sunni majority country, has been under the tight grip of the Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam. Hafez was a modernizer who built a secular constitution and offered security to the minority communities. Syrian society, unlike other Arab societies, is a mosaic of religious and ethnic communities. Religious minorities (Alawites, Christians Shiites, Druze, etc.) make up around 26 per cent of the population. Over 10 per cent of Syria’s people are ethnic minorities. These minority sects have traditionally enjoyed larger social freedom in Baathist Syria than in most other Arab countries and have remained by and large loyal to the regime. On the other hand, the extremist Sunni organizations, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, were opposed to the regime’s secularist doctrine. In the late 1970s, inspired by the rise of political Islamic movements elsewhere in West Asia, the Syrian Brothers revolted against Damascus. It was this rebellion that led to the massacre in Hama.

    The Arab Spring provided the Syrian Brothers with another opportunity to rise against the Assad regime. The historical factors are now in favour of them. In Egypt, the Brotherhood is rising as a major political force. In Turkey, there is a moderate Islamist government in power. In Libya, Western nations intervened militarily in support of the anti-regime protesters. Under these circumstances, anti-Assad demonstrations first occurred in Hama, the city which still keeps alive the wounded memories of 1982. The first mistake Assad made was to send troops to the city before the beginning of the month of Ramadan to quell the protests. The move backfired. During the holy month, demonstrations spread to other cities where the Islamists were strong and every attempt to forcefully to put them down only fuelled people’s anger. The protests also gradually turned violent and the rebels started attacking security officials, bringing the country to the brink of a civil war.

    Now, after almost a year of protests, the United Nations estimates that over 5,000 people have been killed so far in Syria. The regime appears weaker now, but is far from being overthrown. At least three major factors make it difficult to bring about a peaceful transition in today’s Syria. Firstly, the rebels have failed to gather enough political capital to lead a non-violent mass upsurge against the regime – the Egyptian model. Their appeal largely remains confined to a few cities. The capital city, Damascus, has not only remained calm over these months, but also witnessed two massive pro-regime demonstrations late last year. Secondly, the regime, notwithstanding its brutalities and the corruption allegations it faces, still has the support of the substantial chunk of the population. According to a recent YouGov Siraj poll on Syria commissioned by The Doha Debates and funded by the Qatar Foundation, some 55 per cent of Syrians, fearing a civil war, want Bashar to stay. Finally, the army’s role is crucial. In Tunisia and Egypt, the army asked their respective leaders to quit power in the wake of popular protests. In Libya, soldiers and commanders in the eastern provinces defected en masse to the opposition and started an armed rebellion. Syria is yet to see any such development. Barring some isolated defection cases, the Syrian army largely remains loyal to the President Bashar.

    The rebels’ resolve to take up arms against the government exposes their inability to gather popular support and fight the regime politically. Defeating the government militarily without any external help is out of the question. And, as long as the army remains loyal to the government, the rebels are unlikely to make any substantial gains in the conflict. But they could continue the rebellion given that they are getting weapons from outside Syria (Syria and Russia allege that weapons for the rebels are being smuggled in through the Turkish border), thus plunging the country into a protracted civil war.

    Western capitals are aggressively pursuing the regime change agenda. The UNSC resolution was a bold step in that direction. But with that move blocked by Russia and China, their efforts have also come to a standstill. The Russian point is that Syria is on the brink of a civil war and supporting regime change now will be equivalent to taking side in the conflict. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who visited President Bashar last week, says that his country is open to a diplomatic solution but is opposed to any pre-condition about Bashar stepping down.

    The veto was of course a blow to the Western and Arab nations’ efforts to bring about regime change in Syria. But, at the same time, it underscores the non-viability of “regime change diplomacy”. It was partially successful in Libya because a military intervention in that country was possible and less risky. Besides, the Libyan rebels had substantial mass support, at least in the eastern provinces. The Syrian situation, however, is more complicated and risky.

    By now it is clear that Russia, which is re-emerging from its post-Soviet strategic retreat, is unlikely to back any attempt to depose Bashar al-Assad. It is not only because Syria is a vital arms purchaser of Russia. Rather, Moscow looks at the Assad regime as a balancing factor in West Asian geopolitics. Regime change diplomacy is aimed at promoting the West’s strategic interests. At present, Syria is the only trusted ally of Iran in the region. Syria is also a supporter of the Hezbollah and is a crucial conduit for Iranian weapons to the Lebanese militia. Besides, the Tartus naval station in Syria is now being revamped by Russia at the request of the Assad regime. Tartus is Russia’s only military base outside the territories of the former Soviet Union. Bashar’s fall would mean a strategic victory for the West and its allies.

    Russia and China appear determined, for now, to deny such a victory to the West. The extremely complicated situation within Syria lets them play their cards. As long as both these nations stand firm with this approach, the West and the Arab nations will be unable to pursue their regime change diplomacy through international forums. A military operation without UN support is unlikely because such an action’s repercussions will be grave. It is also unlikely that the West will withdraw the demand for Assad’s resignation. This means that the great game over Syria is likely to continue.

    The Assad regime stepped up its violent response soon after the UN veto. Some analysts are of the view that Russia might have told Damascus to quell the rebellion at the earliest, possibly before another resolution comes up. But if the rebels continue to get arms, they could prolong the conflict, making it difficult for the regime to restore order by force. For how long can the Assad regime continue its killing spree? And even if the regime survives, over what kind of a Syria will it rule in the future?