With Syria facing the prospect of further deterioration into sectarian violence, reports suggest that a mixture of political stalemate, polarization and opposition division make a resolution of the crisis highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Opposition activists meeting in Istanbul today gave Burhan Ghalioun (above, center) a one-month extension as head of the Syrian National Council, after rejecting a draft transition plan he had agreed with a rival faction.
“Ghalioun’s three-month tenure was renewed for another month until a better mechanism to elect a head of the council is devised,” a source, in contact with delegates at the closed meeting, told Reuters.
Ten days after Syria’s principal opposition groups appeared to have agreed a transition strategy, the subsequent collapse of the pact indicates that factions supporting foreign intervention to depose President Bashar Assad are in the ascendancy, analysts suggest.
The SNC chairman agreed a transition accord with the internally-based National Coordination Body, which specifically rejected “any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country,” writes Mariam Karouny:
But members of Ghalioun’s own council denounced the deal, forcing him to disavow it. Many grassroots protesters inside Syria also rejected it, saying they had lost hope that 10 months of peaceful demonstrations – now accompanied by an armed insurgency in some regions – would bring down Assad…..But the quick unraveling of the pact, which ruled out such international action, ensures that achieving that goal will remain elusive since Western powers are loath to throw their weight behind a fractured Syrian opposition.
Protesters in the Khaldiyeh section of Homs came under fire from Syrian troops today as Arab League observers toured the neighborhood, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The observers reportedly fled the scene, reinforcing opposition claims that the ineffectual mission is being used to buy time by the Assad regime.
“The Arab League has shown itself to be not just ineffective but also negligent,” says Salman Sheikh of the Brookings Doha Centre. The crisis is likely to become “more unpredictable, more militarized and more atomized”.
The Arab League yesterday repeated its demand for an end to the violence, and said its monitoring mission would continue, despite criticism from opposition activists.
The league’s Sunday’s meeting was “very disappointing,” said Radwan Ziadeh (pictured above, right, with Galhioun), a Washington-based member of the Syrian National Council, the leading opposition umbrella group.
“We support the mission of the observers,” he said, “but at the same time they should refer the case to the Security Council.”
The Local Coordination Committees objected to the Arab League communiqué’s moral equivalence in condemning regime violence and opposition resistance , complaining that it “puts the killer and the victim on the same line,” according to Al Arabiya.
The regime is banking on internal divisions and political shifts within the Arab League working to its advantage.
“Oppression seems to be the only policy of the government and they are playing for time after and looking forward to their ally Iraq taking over the presidency of the Arab League in March,” said Patrick Seale, a biographer of Assad’s father. “The balance of power remains very much in the regime’s favor. I don’t see any immediate change in the situation and I don’t think the Syrian opposition has what it takes.”
On the other hand, despite its violent crackdown, writes Washington-based dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, “the regime has not been able to prevail over the protesters the overwhelming majority of whom remain committed to nonviolent tactics.”
Meanwhile, rebel faction from within the ruling Baath Party, today announced a “coup” against the Damascus leadership, according to a leaked statement issued from London. The “neo-Baath” dissidents urged party members to return to the movement’s ideological roots of “national unity, freedom, and democracy,” to rebel against the “corrupt” leadership” and to “confront tyranny in order to establish a democratic, plural, and civil state.”
While Ghalioun and his supporters stress the need to avoid a sectarian civil war, the domestic opposition wants to boost the role of the defector-based Free Syrian Army.
“Moreover, the SNC, although it has come to include more on-the-ground activists, has failed to shed its reputation as a mainly expat-controlled movement that does not adequately reflect the ethnic and tribal makeup of Syrian society,” according to analyst Michael Weiss.
The US and Turkey want the Syrian opposition to maintain its largely non-violent resistance.
“Those who want a better future for Syria have so much more power and so much more moral authority when they reject violence and push their own government to do the same,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
“The Syrian opposition demands democracy and we told them during a meeting yesterday [Sunday] that this should be done through peaceful means,” a spokesman for Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told AFP.
But the absence of international leverage in support of Syrian dissidents undermines the effectiveness of non-violent strategies, veteran activist Kamal Labwani suggests.
The first Syrian dissident invited to the White House, Labwani said the opposition tried the Velvet Revolution approach in 2005’s Damascus Spring “to import civil rights and human rights to face this kind of totalitarian regime by this way.”
“We achieved some kind of change but the circumstances go another way after 9/11, because the international community was not interested in what happened inside Syria,” Labwani said. “We didn’t have any support.”
While the opposition remains largely non-violent, the regime has maintained its repressive approach. at least 30 people were killed over the weekend in Homs, Hama, suburbs of Damascus and the northern province of Idlib, according to the Merei monitoring group and the Local Coordination Committees.
“The Syrian government has been very consistent from the beginning with a policy to confront the demonstrations with a combination of mass arrests, violence, and they haven’t changed,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “It’s a policy to beat the uprising down and hit people so badly that they surrender and give it up, and that obviously hasn’t worked.”
The opposition remains divided over the relative weight of armed struggle and peaceful resistance, the role of Islamist groups, and the scope for external intervention.
The Arab League called on the opposition to present a coherent political vision in a recent communiqué, which also criticized the Baathist regime. But Ahmad al-Khatib, a member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, said the league report “could have been more damning”, expressing a widely-felt disappointment with its observer mission.
“The Arab League seems to want to keep a line open with the Syrian regime and not risk having the monitors expelled or see their work further restricted,” he told Reuters.
A visiting scholar at Harvard University and former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Ziadeh believes the Arab League monitoring mission lacks the capacity and expertise to stop the violence.
“What’s needed is international intervention,” he argues. “We need a buffer zone along the Turkish borders where the situation is still escalating. Maybe the UN has to declare some ‘safe cities.’”
Independent analysts concur with activists’ claims that the Arab League mission is providing cover for the regime.
“The question is, how can an alternative government be found which can rely on popular support, how can an election be organized, as well as a new constitution, and how can all the forces in Syria participate in bringing about these changes?” asks Ruprecht Polenz, a foreign policy expert for Germany’s Christian Democrats. “Either way I believe that things cannot continue with Assad still in power.”
Other observers suggest that the mission could still perform a useful function if it had additional resources and a revised mandate.
“Perhaps a more robust team will take account of the torrent of criticism levelled against it and improve the monitors’ performance, either forcing the Syrian regime to abide by its commitment or flatly declaring non-compliance,” writes the FT’s Roula Khalaf. “But if the mission allows itself to become a fig leaf for repression, a lot more than the credibility of the league will be at stake.”
While supportive of military defectors’ actions, the internal opposition remains opposed to a Libyan-style international “militarization” of the revolt.
“We are against the militarization of the revolution because it justifies the oppression and the use of force. Tens of people are getting killed now but if the revolution becomes a military one then hundreds will be killed,” said Khalaf Dahowd, a member of the National Coordination Body’s executive bureau. “Syria is a country of many sects and ethnicities. Foreign intervention will break the social infrastructure of Syria and its political borders,” he said.
Many SNC members originally agreed with the NCB’s rejection of international intervention, said SNC member Khaled Kamal “But now all roads are blocked and the political solution did not work.”.
“After ten months and after we knocked on all doors… foreign intervention is the only choice before us,” he said.
But there is a lack of consensus within the SNC and a recent assessment of the risks of military intervention posted on its website* highlighted the “potential costs and unintended consequences” of foreign interference.
The last year’s uprising “has been a critical setback not only to the Assad regime, but also to Iran and Hezbollah,” but “Syria’s future will be governed largely by uncertainty and prolonged malaise,” the analysis suggests.
“Given the range of risks, the US and its allies should consider carefully the potential costs and unintended consequences of further intervention,” it concludes.
The opposition is failing to provide a viable alternative to the regime, in part because its schisms reflect the divisions in Syrian society, Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, told CNN.
“The reality is, this is not a sectarian conflict. This is an essentially political conflict,” he said.
“The uprising is real and genuine. Millions of Syrians basically would like to have serious change in Syria. But also the reality is that Syria is deeply divided, not just the opposition.”
Unlike Libya’s Transitional National Council, the Syrian National Council only emerged over several months and has yet to secure international recognition, in part because of differences with Syria’s domestic opposition.
“Many protesters criticized the SNC’s slow response to unfolding events, particularly the action of its chairman, Burhan Ghalioun, who initially refused to support individual military defections, arguing that the Syrian army should defect en masse,” according to Weiss, an analyst with the Henry Jackson Society, a forum for democratic geo-politics.
“Making matters worse, in the last two weeks, the SNC has further embarrassed itself by sending mixed messages about its real intentions,” he writes in Foreign Affairs:
First, the group said that it was in favor of foreign military intervention. But on December 30, 2011, reports swirled that Ghalioun and a handful of senior SNC figures had inked a unity agreement with the anti-interventionist National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a domestic opposition group that activists suspect is a cover organization pushing reconciliation with Assad’s regime. Two high-ranking members of the SNC, Ausama Monajed and Radwan Ziadeh, told me that the council rejected the text of the agreement, which they claimed was only a “draft.” Sure enough, a few days later, the SNC launched its official Web site that, drawing on a blueprint I prepared, called for outside forces to establish a safe zone in Syria. This more aggressive call for foreign military intervention reflects a need to hang on to support from the protesters, who now often denounce the regime and the SNC in the same breath.
Damascus has scandalized every Potemkin effort at reform or negotiation,” writes Weiss:
The Arab League observer mission has proved useless. Thousands have been massacred; many thousands more have been tortured using methods as imaginative as they are sadistic. When a country of 23 million collapses into anarchy, how many people will have to be widowed, orphaned, or dispossessed before the definition of failed statehood has been met? The more time the world gives Assad, the more he makes a mockery of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, and the more people begging for Western assistance are simply wished the best of luck and left to their grim fate.
Nevertheless, “the regime is clearly losing control,” writes Washington-based dissident Ammar Abdulhamid:
So, with an internationally mandated and protected buffer zone in place, humanitarian support to protest communities, and material and logistical support to the Free Syrian Army, the job of toppling the Assads can be accomplished. Focus of the international community should now move to drawing up day-after political and security arrangements in cooperation with an assortment of Syrian opposition members and experts. This discussion cannot be avoided or delayed anymore. The regime is losing control. This means that the alternative needs to be found soon so that all these nightmarish scenarios we are afraid of can be avoided.
*The SNC’s analysis of the risks of military intervention:
Syria’s stability and its role in regional security politics have become steadily more uncertain since early 2011. The country has now experienced eight months of popular protests. Despite a lack of political cohesion or unity of purpose among the country’s opposition forces, rural areas and smaller cities continue to experience increasingly armed unrest. Meanwhile, the regime’s crackdown on dissent has shown little to no sign of abating as the country’s Alawite-led praetorian security forces attempt to restore order and quash unrest.
The chorus of international pressure on Syria has steadily increased. The US and EU have bolstered unilateral sanctions regimes, turned to the UN to deepen international pressure and have openly called for President Bashar Al-Asad to step aside. Turkey, until recently one of the regime’s closest allies, has been one of Syria’s most vocal critics. Lastly, the conservative Gulf monarchies, which continue to have reservations about regional popular unrest, have nonetheless pushed ahead with Arab League efforts to further isolate Syria.
On the one hand, local and expatriate Syrian forces opposed to the regime are backed by the West, and key Arab and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. On the other hand, the Al-Asad regime enjoys the support of its key regional ally Iran, support from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and strong international backing from Russia and China – countries that could play counter-revolutionary roles during what is increasingly looking like a “long winter of Arab discontent.”
A number of countries – including US NATO allies such as France and Turkey – increasingly entertain the prospect of creating a “humanitarian corridor” in Syria, potentially along the border with Turkey, to provide relief to both the Syrian population and dissident groups opposed to the Asad regime. These calls are echoed by Syrian opposition forces both in and outside Syria, including the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC).
These calls do not address the real world challenges of creating such a “humanitarian corridor”: joint and combined military operations to suppress Syria’s air defense network, the need to neutralize the country’s air force, eliminating Syria’s asymmetric deterrence by containing unconventional threats from long range missiles (potentially armed with chemical or biological agents) and instability along the Golan Heights. They also do not address the risk of eventually having to engage loyal Syrian ground forces (including large concentrations of Alawites) that see few prospects in a post-Asad Syria.
Some consider military intervention in Syria to be a potential next step in shifting the regional balance in favor of the US and its allies. There is little question that sustained military operations in Libya would have been impossible without American logistics, targeting, command and control and sheer military capacity. In the case of Syria, military intervention is similarly unlikely to succeed without US involvement. However, military intervention, in the Middle East, let alone near the epicenter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, always involves serious risks and the impact of the law of unintended consequences.
There now is only limited support in the US, Europe, and the Arab world for direct intervention in Syria. However, the same could also have been said in the lead-up to operations in Libya. There are also reasons why the US might directly (or indirectly) take the lead in such efforts. The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq has left many questions about the future role and influence of the US, especially in the context of strategic competition with Iran. Instability in Syria presents Washington with the opportunity to undermine Iran’s regional posture, weaken or change the leadership of one of its key regional allies and potentially to downgrade the Islamic Republic’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict through Hezbollah.
Syria is not Libya. While the later may be geographically much larger, it is a mostly empty country with a small population and very limited military capacity. In contrast, Syria’s population is more than three times larger than Libya, has almost 30 times the latter’s population density and a much larger and far more capable military overall. All of these factors complicate any calculus on military intervention in Syria, whether in terms of the level of potential military opposition, or with regards to the risk of high civilian casualties.
Opposition forces in Syria do not control territory, nor do they currently have military resources at their disposal to mount more than hit-and-run attacks. Most attacks by the FSA, while potentially coordinated, seem to have limited tactical or strategic depth and have yet to present a serious challenge to units loyal to the regime. While Libya’s opposition forces were divided, Syria’s are far more so, with little unity or agreement on the use of violence as a means to an end, and discord about the potential role of foreign intervention. The bulk of the security forces remain largely loyal as decades of over-recruiting from mainly rural minority groups bares fruit in terms of a strong corporatist military culture.
As the US and its allies weigh options for their next-steps in their Syria policies, they need to consider a number of key military and political factors that shape the prospects for any form of direct intervention:
Syria’s military forces have many qualitative limitations, particularly in terms of modern weapons, combat readiness, and recent combat experience. They are, however, very large and months of protests, and concern over a potential Israeli strike on Iran, have made them more alert. They would need to acquire more modern and capable systems, such as major surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and a new sensor and C4I network to defeat a major US-led air operation, but it would take a far more advanced operation than was the case in Libya, and Syria’s leverage over Hezbollah, and Syrian long range missiles, air and coastal defense systems, and chemical and biological stockpiles present another kind of challenge.
Despite defections and desertions, Syria’s praetorian military units may have little choice but to rally around the Asad regime. Given their limited prospects in a post-Asad Syria, heavily Alawite elite units with sizeable numbers of loyal Sunnis will likely perceive no alternatives to defending the regime in the event of wider intervention.
Armed opponents of the regime, such as the Free Syrian Army, are an important development. However, their size, structural limitations, their predominantly Sunni character and as-of-yet limited command and control and offensive capabilities mean that the FSA has limited prospects in the short term for presenting a meaningful counterweight or alternative to the Syrian military. It is far more likely that the group’s insurgency will be used as a platform by the Asad regime to weaken an already divided Syrian opposition.
Syria’s internal divisions are not new. However the Asad regime has managed to escalate Sunni-Alawite tension to the point that it has taken a life of its own and could be difficult to bring under control by any of the country’ political forces. This presents the risk that any escalation in Syria’s instability is likely to be sectarian, with real prospects for deepening divisions and broadening communal segregation. A divided Syria, once an unlikely worst case scenario for Syrians, grows increasingly probable as a result.
Given Syria’s relatively high population density and the close proximity of civilian and military centers, it is unlikely that airstrikes in or near major urban centers – even with advanced targeting – will result in fewer casualties than the number of Syrians the Asad regime is thought to have killed so far.
The Asad regime may react by pursing strategies that risk deeper regional destabilization as a means of deterring its regional and international opponents. It could also undertake desperate efforts to secure the future of the Alawite community. Syria’s potential responses – which include turning to regional proxies and its BCW-capable ballistic missile holdings – range in scale but all have potentially catastrophic consequences for Syria and the region. They also vary considerably based on what triggers Syrian escalation.
In the event of further escalation in Syria, there is no certainty that regional spillover effects can be contained. Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are susceptible to instability, as are Israel and Turkey. The scale of Sunni-Shi’a regional acrimony, the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process and uncertainty about future political forces warrant a degree of caution.
The prospect of direct escalation in Syria may trigger kneejerk reactions from both Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. This includes deflecting attention from Syria and heightening the costs of intervention by escalating tensions with Israel. Should intervention take place, there is little to prevent Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq from undertaking potentially destabilizing action in Syria not unlike the cycle of violence in Iraq in the wake of the US invasion.
Russia has emerged as a key player in balancing against further intervention in Syria. It is likely that Moscow will opt to heighten the stakes further through military posturing in the Mediterranean and “game-changing” military aid to Syria to deter the US and its allies from further escalating in Syria and raising the prospect of Libya-style intervention in the Levant. Other members of the so-called “BRICS” countries, crucially China, can also be expected to bandwagon with Russia at least at the level of the UN Security Council.
It could be argued that even without further escalation, a year of Syrian instability has been a critical setback not only to the Asad regime, but also to Iran and Hezbollah. Syria’s future will be governed largely by uncertainty and prolonged malaise. Given the range of risks, the US and its allies should consider carefully the potential costs and unintended consequences of further intervention in Syria.