Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Regime Survival and Syria

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A few weeks ago I wrote about some of lessons that can be distilled from the case of Libya, focusing in particular on the topic of regime survival. There, I argued that Bashar al-Assad, following in the footsteps of the hardline clerics in Iran, decided to clamp down quickly and brutally on the protesters gathering in various Syrian cities. Assad "wants to cripple the protest movement and force it to negotiate on his terms. Because al-Assad hit the opposition hard from the beginning, it hasn't had a chance to metastasize in numbers or on a large-scale. Which means that the opposition is left fighting a valiant but losing conflict against a murderous state." The idea is to extinguish any revolutionary, anti-government activities, preventing them from capturing any kind of momentum that could place the government, as well as the entire regime (or political system), in jeopardy. It's a matter of political survival.

At the time, Syria seemed to be a relatively simple case of a moderate number of poorly trained/equipped and unorganized opposition members getting routed by a more powerful and tightly-run authoritarian state. Since that blog post, several new internal and external factors have surfaced. Now, the picture is a bit messier, with factors inside and outside Syria imposing heavier constraints and pressures on the Assad government. Because of this, I'd like to take a closer look at Syria.

Let's first explore the changes in Syria's external environment, starting with the West's reactions. Of course, the U.S., Canada and the EU have called for Assad to step down and have applied sanctions on Syria, targeting its financial sector, media outlets, research centers, and various leadership figures (including the Ministers of Finance and the Economy, as well as army officers). And after the EU slapped sanctions on Syria's oil sector, including the state-owned General Petroleum Corporation (GPC) and Syria Trading Oil (Sytrol), French oil company Total and Royal Dutch Shell shut down operations.

Last Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Syrian opposition activists, including Burhan Ghalioun, the political opposition leader, in Geneva, Switzerland, to grant American support for their effort to overthrow Assad. Also on Tuesday Washington declared that Ambassador Robert Ford will return to Damascus to resume work trying to lend American support to the Syrian people, especially the protesters and activists. If you recall, amid growing security concerns, Ford was called back to the States last month.

Syria's neighbors have also responded quickly and harshly against the violence inside the country. In a surprise move, Turkey has turned on Syria, its former friend. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for Assad to stop the violence and step down from power. Moreover, Turkey, like the West, has placed an array of sanctions on Syria, such as suspending a trade pact, halting financial credit dealings with Syria, and freezing Syrian government assets.  And "Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced that Ankara had shelved plans for Turkey's TPAO petroleum company to explore oil with Syria's state oil company." Even more troubling to Syria, Turkey is now hosting members of the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition. And at the urging of France and Turkey, there's a push for setting up humanitarian corridors inside of Syria so people can keep safe and get access to aid. But so far both the EU and NATO haven't endorsed the idea.

The Arab League has also come down hard on Syria. It suspended Syria's membership and placed a number of sanctions on Syria. The AL froze the assets of and imposed a travel ban on 19 Syrian officials, including cabinet ministers, intelligence chiefs and security officers (though not Assad). Other sanctions include cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank, ceasing funding for projects in Syria, and freezing Syrian government assets. Flights between Syria and its Arab neighbors will stop next Thursday. The AL also agreed to a weapons ban on Syria.

The internal dynamics have also significantly changed in the last several weeks. The Syrian opposition gradually, albeit slowly, is organizing itself politically, with dual councils based in Turkey and in Syria. Moreover, the opposition, led by army defectors, have formed the Syrian Free Army with the intent of overthrowing Assad and protecting Syrian citizens. Opposition sources say that the SFA membership numbers between 10,000 and 20,000. The SFA has begun launching attacks against military installations (intelligence base, convoys, etc.), thereby escalating the conflict further and making it even bloodier. In fact, these developments led Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to state that Syria is now engulfed in a civil war.

Just as important, at a late November meeting in Turkey, the Free Syrian Army met with the civilian opposition Syrian National Council, the main political opposition group, and both sides agreed to coordinate their efforts to overthrow Assad's government. According to a SNC spokesman, "The council recognised the Free Syrian Army as a reality, while the army recognised the council as the political representative." At the SNC's insistence, the Free Syrian Army promised to use force only to protect civilians, "but not take on offensive actions against the army." (This will be interesting to see how this plays out. Colonel Asaad, head of the SFA, has called for foreign air strikes on "strategic targets" in Syria and logistical support from the international community.)

What should we make of what's happening in Syria? First, Assad is completely discredited by his ridiculous and preposterous propaganda. Few, if any, countries believe Assad's conspiracy theories of secret foreign plots against the Syrian state. And they don't buy that the state-sponsored violence is justified or limited. Or that he's merely defending Syrian sovereignty. Equally dubious is his recent claim that "[m]ost of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa." Assad even went so far as to state that he doesn't really control Syria's security forces. And I'm sure very few believe his promises of democratic reform or that he'll sincerely negotiate in good faith with the opposition.

Second, Assad is increasingly isolated. His support for violence against anti-government protesters and activists has created a loose coalition of countries--both East and West--against Syria, creating unprecedented pressure on his administration and the entire political regime.

But despite all of this, it doesn't look like Assad is going anywhere for quite some time. He seems to think he can brutalize and outlast the opposition. Sure, ego and a lust for power, apparently almost natural traits of repressive authoritarian leaders, play a strong role in his calculations. But just as important is the fact that Assad still has some tools he can wield to sustain himself and the state longer than optimists like Fareed Zakaria think.

For instance, Syria receives diplomatic cover from China and Russia, both of which routinely block UN statements and resolutions on its behalf. It has Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas for funding and military assistance. Syria is able to take advantage of Lebanon's permeable borders and sympathetic political elites to smuggle goods and money, thereby maneuvering around the sanctions and offsetting their impact. The Shabiha, or thugs, as the loyalist forces are known--the most important linchpin in quelling the unrest--hasn't cracked is still out in force doing Assad's bidding. In addition, as revenge against Turkey breaking ranks, Assad is now using the Kurdish card. He has reformed ties with the much-despised PKK, allowing the group to set up shop in Syria, from which it can conveniently make life difficult for the Turkish leadership.

On top of all this, the U.S. and NATO really don't want to get significantly involved in a Syrian conflict. Both clearly see Syria as a much different and trickier case than Libya, one fraught with grave dangers and high costs. As a result, the West won't seek to replicate the "Responsibility to Protect" model of foreign policy in Syria, even though thousands, perhaps millions, of Syrians face threats from the state. Moreover, Turkey doesn't want to scuffle with Iran, Syria's sponsor and likely defender, and Iran's auxiliary organizations. And the Middle East has likely gone about as far as it will go in punishing Syria.

With this in mind, then, the sad truth is that as long as Assad can partially minimize the number of refugees fleeing the country and the number of casualties and deaths, Syria won't face much additional external pressure to change course. That leaves the opposition, mostly alone, to fight against a much stronger Syrian state. Hence, Assad probably will win this fight, though things could change, depending on how much and how fast the opposition can cohere and strengthen its military capabilities.

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