Syria, and the cost of failure

The Syrian regime's violent repression persists, in a context of regional rivalries that fuel the country's conflict. The ensuing impasse also reflects the dominance of state interests over international justice.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 March 2012

The Syrian regime's violent repression of dissent has now continued for a year, with results that are both brutal and inconclusive. The security forces remain in control of the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and have used their great military superiority to crush opposition in areas (such as the Baba Amr district of Homs) where protest has been most sustained and vigorous.

Yet the widespread calls for international action to prevent a greater humanitarian disaster have not come even close to a tipping-point: western states may talk tough, including at the United Nations Security Council and in other public forums, but clearly have little appetite at present for further intervention.

The Ba'athist regime in Syria has long experience of using overwhelming force to suppress rebellion, not least in the assault on the city of Hama in February 1982 when Hafez al-Assad was president. The dynasty that passed on Hafez's death in 2000 to his younger son Bashar al-Assad, fortified by this inheritance, still appears confident that it can maintain control and - unlike its counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya - subdue a frustrated populace. In this purpose it has four advantages.

The four assets

The first is the size and power of Syria's armed forces - an army of 220,000, a paramilitary Ba'ath Party militia of over 100,000, an elite special-forces division estimated to be over 10,000 strong, and a Republican Guard contingent that may be even larger. There have been defections from the regular army, and doubts over the reliability of conscripts and parts of the militia persist; moreover, the decision of the deputy oil minister Abdo Hussameddin to resign and stand with the rebels is a sign of internal dissent at a senior political level. But in the context of the overall situation there have been relatively few such breaches, and as long as the regime looks (including to those within) capable of surviving the crisis a serious fracturing is unlikely.

A very significant factor is that perhaps 70% of the officer class is drawn from al-Assad's Alawi community that numbers perhaps 10% of Syria's population. They, and the adherents of this Shi'a sect as a whole, would lose their status and much else if the regime fell. This helps explain why Syria has not seen the kind of mass defections by entire military units as happened during the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

The second advantage is related to the issue of Syria's sectarian politics, in that members of other minorities, including Christians and Kurds, have a stake in backing the regime. Much of the business class in Damascus and Aleppo is also still tolerably loyal, in spite of the effects of sanctions and the pressures on the economy intensified by a year of revolt. In general, Syria's diverse minorities fear violent regime change, especially if this brought the Sunni majority to power (and especially if the new authorities included radical Islamists). The al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, caused considerable dismay among these minorities when he called for support for the rebels.

The third is that the al-Assad regime's political opponents are divided. The Syrian National Council is a coalition of seven groups, and another sixteen groups compose the National Coordination Committee. On the paramilitary side, the Free Syria Army claims 15,000 members but in reality may have barely half that number (and most are lightly armed). There are also independent armed units, some with loose connections to what remains of al-Qaida, and these have it seems been effective in targeting government forces with powerful bombs.

The fourth advantage is that even the more reluctant (or self-interested) of the supporters of Bashar al-Assad's regime can use the experience of Iraq and more recently Libya to make a plausible case against externally imposed regime termination on the grounds that chaos would follow. Russia, most notably, offers Damascus sufficient backing to avoid any prospect of UN-sanctioned foreign military action.

These realities reinforce the view held by many western and Arab diplomats with knowledge of Syria, that the country's core power-structure is still firmly in control and that there is little immediate chance of this situation changing (see Alex Spillius & David Blair, "Syria: diplomats fear rebels cannot defeat Assad", Daily Telegraph, 7 March 2012).

The double axis

There is a further and closely related geopolitical element in the Syrian crisis, namely the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi rulers' perception that Iran is the major threat to their survival is underpinned by its fear of the substantial Shi'a populations in the eastern oil-bearing areas and in neighbouring Bahrain. Thus, as a means of weakening Iran they have come to support the Syrian rebels and desire the Assad regime's end. From this perspective, arming the rebels makes sense.

Tehran's perception directly counters this. It is that the Saudis (and other western Gulf states) are acting in collusion with the west and seek the al-Assad regime's destruction because this would seriously undermine Iran's influence in Syria (and, crucially, Lebanon also). Iran thus supports Damascus and sends military aid to buttress its efforts.

The situation in Iraq both intensifies and complicates this regional dynamic. The Shi'a-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad is facing an upsurge in violence, whose latest manifestations include the killing of at least twenty-five police in Haditha and a twin bombing in Tal Afar. It sees the attacks as emanating from Iraq's Sunni minority, and the latter as increasingly supporting its co-religionists who are at the heart of the rising in Syria (see Abeer Mohammed, "Western Iraq Province Sides with Syrian Uprising", Iraq Crisis Report 387, IWPR, 9 February 2012). There is thus a double regional axis in the evolving conflicts: Iran-Iraqi Shi'a-Assad regime and Saudi Arabia-Iraqi Sunni-Syrian rebels.

The justice gap

This international dimension of the Syrian crisis, extending both to the immediate region and far wider, thus reflects the perceived self-interest of all those involved. This leaves many of Syria's people vulnerable to brutal state repression (while a few of the rebel elements may be involved in the so far sporadic urban bombings). In such circumstances, an argument can readily made that international legal procedures (such as referral to the International Criminal Court) are an appropriate instrument as part of the response to the crackdown.

This case would be more convincing, however, if the court had grown in the past decade to the point where it had near-universal support and was speedier and more efficient in its operations. The unwillingness of states to cooperate, and the refusal of some of the most powerful among them (including the United States) even to accede to the court's juridisction, minimise the prospect of the ICC - at least in the short term - having much impact. The failure here is also retrospective, for if the ICC had been allowed to work to its potential then western actions in Iraq and elsewhere might well have been subject to its judicial sanction.

There is a long way to go before a truly effective and consistent international rule of law can be developed and sustained. The impact of its absence, and of the failure this absence represents, is being felt every day in Syria.

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