Averting all-out civil war in Syria

International diplomacy should declare its unequivocal support for the peaceful protesters and the deluge of peaceful demonstrations still flooding the streets of many Syrian cities, thus pushing for a steady shift of power relations on the ground back to the political, rather than military, realm. These demonstrations bear witness to the determination and bravery of those ordinary Syrians who are steadfast in their resolve to uphold the moral high ground vis-à-vis the regime.

Franco Galdini
6 March 2012

Since December last year, and especially with the onslaught on the central city of Homs by the Syrian army, the escalating crisis in Syria has morphed into an international political standoff pitching two apparently irreconcilable camps. The first comprises the United States and the European Union, along with the Arab Gulf States, Jordan and Turkey (and, tacitly, Israel) who have been crossing swords with Russia, China, Iran, Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.

The regionalisation of the crisis first, with the Arab League leading the initiative in consultation with the UN, and then its internationalisation both betray the pivotal geostrategic place Syria has come to occupy in the Middle East under the iron-fist stewardship of the Assad dynasty. Whereas the first camp espies a historic possibility to break the backbone of what Jordanian King Abdullah eye-catchingly called ‘a crescent of dominant Shiʿite movements,’[1] with Iran as the coveted final prize along with the reestablishment of Sunni dominance in the country, the other is bent on defending its interests in the region against what it describes as western-led imperialist encroachments, with the aim of maintaining the balance of power tilted in its favour.

Both representations conveniently overlook the Syrian specificities of the current uprising, which has laid bare both the resilience and inherent weaknesses of the system painstakingly crafted during Hafith al-Assad’s presidency for life, and then inherited upon his death in June 2000 by his son Bashar. Such specificities, with their knock-on implications for the regional environment, should inform future policies meant to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people and ensure a transition to a hopefully more participatory political arrangement between Syria’s many constituencies.

This is not only a moral imperative, in view of the unspeakable suffering visited upon the Syrian people, but also a pragmatic stance. A civil war in Syria risks drawing in several regional and international actors in a lengthy proxy confrontation which could destabilise the whole Middle East. Conspiracy theories aside, it is hard to understand whose long term interests such an outcome would serve.

The Assad regime: resilient yet weakened

To the dismay of many a western observer, the Syrian regime has proved incredibly resilient to internal revolt and mounting international pressure. It has not imploded in the fashion of Tunisia or Egypt ‘fast-track’ revolutions, as many expected, possibly within but certainly outside the country. Whereas the repressive apparatus embodied by the Syrian army and, especially, countless security services cum militias (the dreaded thugs of the shabiha) provides part of the answer to this conundrum, the remainder is found in the carefully crafted social contract between Syria’s many constituencies President Hafith al-Assad devised during his three decades in power.

Mixing Baʿathist socialist ideology with political pragmatism, Assad prodded the country towards modernisation through a mixture of industrialisation and regime-led economic opening (Ar. infitah) along with redistributive policies in the form of investments in the country’s mostly rural, depressed areas and a burgeoning welfare state. The former gained the regime the allegiance of the (mostly Sunni) merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo, along with a newly emerging lower middle class of state employees working in government industries, hospitals and schools, or in the sprawling bureaucratic apparatus needed to run them. The latter solidified the support of the Baʿath’s peasant constituency and the urban poor, at the time comprising a big percentage of Syria’s total population. Finally, other minorities – especially the various Christian confessions, but also the Druze and the Ismaʿilis – came to view the regime as the best guarantor of their economic interests and religious freedoms, and a powerful counterbalance to Sunni dominance.

Clearly, when such arrangements came into question – as during the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising in the early 1980s – the regime could count on a ruthless machinery of coercion whose loyalty was secured by kinship relations and patronage. In other words, key posts of command in the security apparatus were assigned to men from the President’s ʿAlawi minority, who would exploit their newly-acquired privileged position for personal gain, thus enormously augmenting their stake in the survival of the regime.

Effectively, whereas in Egypt the army could quickly jettison Mubarak whilst remaining at the country’s helm, at the outbreak of the revolt in Syria the core sectarian base of the regime closed ranks around their leader, whom they perceived as the gatekeeper of privileges acquired during decades. In a similar fashion, most people belonging to minorities did the same, if not out of principled support, for fear of what the future may hold.

However, the Assad regime has inherent weaknesses that have been laid bare during almost one year of upheaval. First of all, on coming to power in June 2000, Bashar al-Assad had to face the economic costs of his father’s political survival. Presenting himself as a modernising reformer, he adopted the Chinese model of economic liberalisation under one party rule, which had the unintended consequence of alienating large swathes of the regime’s traditional powerbase, as government subsidies were steadily cut in favour of a free-market economy. The retreat of the state from the provision of welfare and services at a time when basic staples and housing prices were increasing under market pressure hit the peasantry and the urban poor particularly hard. Simultaneously, the Syrian populace had to endure the brazen display of wealth by a new class (Ar. at-tabaqa al-jadida) of young entrepreneurs who benefitted enormously from their links with the regime, gathering spectacular riches in spectacularly short a time – as epitomised by the President’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.[2]

Furthermore, whilst the regime’s legitimacy as the guarantor of social peace and stability has been shattered by the uprising, the core sectarian nature of its power base has come to the fore under the duress of the current upheaval, undermining even further the regime’s claim of representing the Syrian people as a whole rather than narrowly defined interests. However, it must be stressed that, whereas the regime’s support base has significantly shrunk as a result of the past decade’s economic policies and the current ruthless suppression of the uprising, apart from those in its ʿAlawi core, the Assad camp can still count on enough popular backing amongst minorities and the moneyed (Sunni) classes in the political capital Damascus and the economic capital Aleppo. Amongst the latter groups, many dread what a post-Assad Syria may hold in store, with widespread fears of an Islamist takeover – fears the regime has done its utmost to heighten and the Syrian opposition precious little to allay.

Syrian opposition: dignity sidelined by force of arms ?

Since the emergence of the protest movement, the regime has set its media propaganda machine in motion, tarring opponents of all stripes with the same brush as members of armed criminal gangs participating in a foreign conspiracy to destabilise Syria. The spectrum of sectarian violence at the hands of foreign elements was set against the regime’s purported patriotic and pan-Arab credentials as a bulwark against imperialism.

So skilfully has the regime been playing the card of sectarianism, that it has thus far managed to define not only the rhetorical but also the socio-political battle lines along which the current struggle should be framed and fought. In this, it has been unwittingly helped by the obvious failure of the opposition movement to outline a credible alternative to the regime’s sectarian agenda, such as – for instance – reframing the whole debate into a politico-economic struggle for dignity, a better future and the re-appropriation of their country by all of Syria’s different constituencies.

Such a discourse would resonate strongly with many Syrians across sectarian lines by demanding, to paraphrase Alan George’s eloquent title, both bread and freedom – a common theme in all Arab uprisings to date.’[3] This could still unite those constituencies who have been marginalised by a decade of neoliberal economic policies and those in the middle classes who have been cautiously calling for more civic freedoms and political representation, thus cutting through the sectarian maze and providing a first set of guarantees for Syria’s minorities which would slowly undermine the regime’s support base. Alas, thus far the opposition has adopted a mirror-like reading of events vis-à-vis the regime, casting the struggle along the same sectarian lines with banners such as, ‘the ʿAlawi is my brother.’’[4]

The label ‘Syrian opposition’ is somewhat misguiding inasmuch as it implies a unity of intent and purpose that hardly corresponds to the reality on the ground and outside Syria. Within Syria, peaceful (Ar. silmiya) demonstrations started being ‘weaponised’ in response to the regime’s disproportionate repression in the face of unarmed protesters.’[5] Thus, since as early as April 2011 the tide has been steadily turning against advocates of keeping the revolution peaceful and in favour of supporters of armed action, first to protect demonstrators and then, increasingly, to hit the regime’s killing machine with guerrilla-style operations. Whilst self-defence is a legitimate right enshrined in international law, the surge in attacks against government forces has given credence in the eyes of many fence-sitters to the regime’s attempts to discredit the uprising as the work of armed gangs.

In effect, the loose network of Local Coordination Committees (LCCs, Ar. lijan at-tansiq al-mahalliya) spearheading the peaceful revolt has been steadily sidelined by the revolution’s armed wing, namely the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a motley crew of (still few though increasing) army defectors, civilians-turned-fighters and criminal elements. Likewise, the diaspora Syrian National Council (SNC) has issued constant if contradictory calls for some sort of foreign intervention to protect civilians in Syria, although it has transpired on  various occasions that what it actually invited was direct military action a la Libye.

However, the SNC has been accused by many inside and outside Syria of having blatantly failed to reach out to Syria’s different constituencies, being instead dominated by Sunnis – including radical members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Parallels have been drawn between the Council’s representatives and the members of the Iraqi diaspora who cheer-led the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, thus raising questions about the level of real support the Council enjoys, especially within Syria. Deep divisions have plagued the SNC since the beginning of its short history, climaxing in the announcement of stalwart oppositionist Haitham al-Malih of the creation of the alternative Syrian Patriotic Group (SPG) in the aftermath of the Friends of Syria conference held in Tunis on 24 February.’[6] Whilst the new party may prove to be more successful in rallying the support of Syria’s many communities, it may add further confusion within the ranks of an already divided opposition.

The anti-Assad camp: military or diplomatic means?

As the regime continues its relentless assault on Homs and the core of the uprising slowly but steadily shifts from peaceful demonstrations to armed confrontations, the idea that a military intervention of some sort would break the stalemate on the ground and accelerate the demise of the regime has been gaining ground within the international anti-Assad camp. After failing to win endorsement for a Security Council resolution calling on the Syrian President to step down due to a Russian-Chinese double veto, arming the Syrian opposition seems to be emerging as the lesser evil.

However, this is a fallacy with many a possible unintended consequence. First of all, as mentioned earlier, the FSA is far from being the command and structure organisation leading the rebellion from its headquarters in Southern Turkey, as often portrayed in western media, resembling instead a loose network of military defectors, armed civilians and even criminal elements. Arming them would create vested interests in the continuation, and possibly escalation, of the conflict, with different groups vying for the influence and status that international funding inevitably carries – thus defeating the stated purpose of creating an effective military counterbalance to the regime’s killing machine. Furthermore, as the spectre of sectarianism looms ever larger on the country, the compiled risk would be to funnel weapons to a conflict that may swiftly turn into civil war, thus increasing the suffering of the Syrian population.

Secondly, it would play into the regime’s propaganda game of blaming the uprising on a foreign-funded conspiracy, rather than acknowledging the home-grown nature of the rebellion along with the legitimate grievances of the demonstrators. This is particularly dangerous as it would edge the many fence-sitters, whose numbers have been swelling by the day in the face of the regime’s disproportionate use of force, back into Assad’s fold, thus frustrating the opposition’s (admittedly inadequate) efforts to recruit as vast a support base as possible in order to discredit the regime’s claims of legitimacy. Thirdly, once a dynamic of proxy support has been set into motion, it will provide yet another incentive to the pro-Assad camp to redouble their efforts to bolster the regime, with further funding and possibly weapons shipments coming into the equation – thus, once again, defeating the purpose.

Lastly and most importantly, it would hammer the last nail in the coffin of the many peaceful demonstrators, arguably still the majority in the key cities of Damascus and, especially, Aleppo, where university students are extremely active. Buffeted between the regime’s violence and the increasing number of radicalising demonstrators supporting an armed struggle with the backing of the international anti-Assad camp, those who still see the (mostly) peaceful nature of the demonstrations as the principled, and most effective, tactic to face and deligitimise the regime in its own turf would certainly lose the day.

Instead, robust international diplomacy has a series of complementary options to influence a positive outcome in Syria, thus averting a civil war and laying the ground for a difficult, yet mostly peaceful, transition. Firstly, international efforts to isolate the regime should be redoubled. Although the Syrian President still enjoys the support of powerful patrons in the region and internationally, the recent General Assembly vote on the Syrian crisis has highlighted his growing international isolation.’[7] Likewise, in the medium term, Russian and Chinese support is not a foregone conclusion, as the mounting international opprobrium at the regime’s repression will push their leadership to at least question the rationale of spending increasing political capital to prop up a regime that has run its course – timing notwithstanding. Such calculation will be especially pragmatic for the Russians, who can ill afford losing their only naval base in the Mediterranean located in the Syrian port city of Tartous, thus forcing the government in Moscow to engage with the Syrian opposition more systematically than they have thus far.

Combined with the indictment of top Syrian officials, including the President and his entourage, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – as international human rights groups have been lobbying for – mounting international isolation would contribute to turn the tide against the Assad regime by prompting those domestic constituencies still supporting him out of fear of the unknown to switch sides in favour of a political transition to a post-Assad Syria.

At this point, extreme caution should be exercised in order to avoid past mistakes such as the de-Baʿathification process implemented in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, which wreaked havoc in the country by depriving most government institutions of a whole cadre of civil servants whilst simultaneously creating a swamp of resentment amongst the many Sunni former employees – thus laying the ground for the future insurgency.

In this optic, whereas the top echelons of the Assad regime are irredeemable in view of their direct involvement in the brutal repression of dissent, the middle and lower ranks of the regime and party should be persuaded to negotiate with the opposition in order to provide as broad a base as possible to the political arrangements which are to govern a future transition of power in the country. In order for this to be possible, the other side of the equation would be to increase pressure on the Syrian opposition abroad and, to the extent possible, inside Syria to create a united front against the regime, thus providing a credible negotiating partner.

Again, finally but most importantly, international diplomacy should declare its unequivocal support for the peaceful protesters, thus pushing for a steady shift of power relations on the ground back to the political, rather than military, realm. The deluge of peaceful demonstrations still flooding the streets of many Syrian cities bear witness to the determination and bravery of those ordinary Syrians, who are steadfast in their resolve to uphold the moral high ground vis-à-vis the regime. This is the only way to allay the fears of sectarian reprisals amongst minorities torn between regime propaganda and actual revenge killings reportedly carried out by members of the shabiha, opposition fighters and armed civilians taking matters in their own hands.

Still time for a way out?

Propaganda on all sides notwithstanding, the regime and the opposition in Syria are locked in stalemate whereby the former has failed to cow protesters into fearful acquiescence and the latter has fallen short of rallying the massive numbers needed to unseat the regime. As it becomes more apparent by the day that neither side is capable of breaking out of this situation, the regime seems to believe it can still pull itself back from the brink by breaking the uprising’s back militarily, the latest siege of Homs being a case in point. Likewise, members of the opposition calling for armed struggle against the brutal repression are gaining ground against peaceful protesters, who are struggling to keep up the momentum of nonviolent popular mobilisation. From their side, the pro-Assad camp has closed ranks behind the regime, which it considers part of a negotiated solution, whereas the anti-Assad camp has been strongly implying it may start arming the opposition on the ground.’[8]

All such moves are pushing Syria over the brink and risk igniting a lengthy and costly civil war. There is no military solution to the crisis: as news comes in of a tactical withdrawal by Homs FSA fighters from the city’s besieged Bab Amr district, [9] the pattern of the Iraqi insurgency looms large. There, the US army struggled to keep control of several hotspots as insurgents would withdraw only to return after the American troops had left to ‘pacify’ yet another place, in a constant game of hide and seek that demoralised soldiers and overstretched the army.

Once again, the opposition is falling into the trap of mirroring the regime’s steps, thus turning to violence in the face of increasing state repression. However, whilst self-defence is a legitimate right, the protesters should reiterate their adherence to peaceful demonstrations in order to maintain the moral high ground of the uprising and, simultaneously, gain the initiative by shifting the battle lines along which the struggle is fought away from sectarianism and towards a discourse of ‘both bread and freedom.’ Sticking to self-defence would lay bare the regime’s propaganda of foreign funded gangs hell-bent on destabilising the country. Slowly but steadily, this would allay the fears of minorities and fence-sitters, who would jump the regime’s sinking ship further undermining its claims to representative legitimacy. The Syrian army would follow suit once it became clear that the regime is doomed.

Whereas the Russian and Chinese governments will be confronted in the mid-term with the political costs of supporting the Assad regime, the anti-Assad camp should refrain from arming the already divisive Syrian opposition, as such a move risks fanning the flames of conflict by tilting the balance in favour of an armed uprising that could turn into a civil war with strong sectarian undertones, whilst providing several ammos to the regime’s propaganda machine.

Even though the window for a peaceful transition is admittedly closing fast, this is not a foregone conclusion and should be pursued out of moral and pragmatic reasons, as the alternative would be a protracted civil war pitching Syria’s different constituencies against each other with the support of various regional and international actors, in a replay of Lebanon’s civil war – ‘on steroids.’’[10] Such a scenario risks destabilising an already volatile region with negative implications for all involved, most especially the Syrian people, whose country would be set back several decades. ‘Freedom comes at a high price,’ poignantly remarked a friend from Homs. Indeed. But the price of civil war would be far, far higher.


[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43980-2004Dec7.html

[2] ↑ Raymond Hinnebusch, Syria: from authoritarian upgrading to revolution?, International Affairs, 88: I (2012), pp. 95 – 113.

[3] ↑ Alan George, Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, London: Zed Press, 2003.

[4]↑ http://www.al-akhbar.com/node/27044

[5] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/09/2011923115735281764.html

[6] More Divisions Among the Syrian Opposition / Stratfor 27.02.12

[7] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=41265

[8] http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/35338/World/Region/Gulf-states-in-favour-of-arming-Syrian-rebels.aspx

[9] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/03/20123274819670365.html

[10] Marc Lynch, Pressure not War: A Pragmatic and Principled Policy Towards Syria, Center for a New American Security (21.02.2012)

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