IS IT THE END GAME IN SYRIA?

Canberra,  12 August 2012
The Events So Far
The Syrian Civil War started on 15 March 2011 as public demonstrations against the Assad regime and was generally considered to be an extension of the ‘Arab Spring’. The sporadic demonstrations soon escalated into a nationwide uprising and subsequently into a civil war with the opposition demanding an end to the five decades of Ba’ath Party rule and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. The reaction of the Syrian Government was to deploy the Army and several cities were besieged resulting in a number of civilian casualties. Over a period of time defectors from the Army joined the opposition and together they formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has been labelled ‘armed terrorist groups’ by the government. The fighting rages on 16 months after the beginning of the insurgency, even as this analysis is being written.
The United Nations calculates that between 21,000 and 29,000 persons have so far been killed, of which at least half are civilians. Up to a million people are estimated to have been displaced internally and tens of thousands have become refugees in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. There is almost universal condemnation of the Syrian Government’s use of violence against the protesters, but both sides have been accused of human rights violations. The United Nations is divided in its approach to the crisis with China and Russia being opposed to sanctions, reasoning that such methods are only precursors to subsequent foreign intervention. An attempt to resolve the issue was made with the appointment of Kofi Annan as a special UN envoy, but the initiative did not break any new ground, forcing Kofi Annan to resign from the post after a few weeks. On 15 July 2012, the International Red Cross assessed the Syrian conflict as a ‘Civil War’, applying the Geneva Convention on it.
By all accounts the Syrian uprising was slow to take hold. In fact, during the spread of unrest in a number of nations in the Arab world, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, Syria had remained deceptively calm. In February 2011, before the actual uprising, the Government attempted to end the insipient conflict by announcing a referendum on a new constitution that promised a political system based on pluralism and democracy as opposed to the entrenched power of the Ba’ath Party. There were other initiatives that were put in place to placate the protesters, such as decreasing the army conscription time, releasing pro-democracy protesters and removing particularly detested officials from power. These ‘concessions’ were followed by a reduction in personal tax, increase in public sector salaries and a pledge to increase press freedom. On 19 April 2011, the emergency law was lifted and further sops offered to the Sunni majority population. However, these offerings were perceived to be too little too late by the insurgency. Since a conciliatory approach did not work, the Government then turned to military-led crackdowns on even peaceful protests. In fact, there is speculation that the crackdowns were purposely calculated to be excessively brutal in order to turn peaceful protests to violence so that the Government could then justify the escalation of the use of force.
Throughout the following months, the conflict has escalated with mixed results for the Government troops as well as the FSA and allied protesters. In July 2012, they were engaged in a high-intensity battle for control of Aleppo, the country’s largest city. After driving out the protesters from Damascus, the Government forces have launched an assault on Aleppo, even using fighter jets to attack opposition strongholds. News reports of 10 August 2012 state that the FSA have withdrawn from some of their positions within the city in what is claimed by them as ‘tactical withdrawals’.
The Groups within the Opposition  
A Transitional National Assembly was formed on 23 August 2011 in Istanbul at a meeting of a majority of the Syrian opposition to be the political arm of the ‘Revolution of the Syrian people’. The Syrian National Council (SNC), as it came to be known, has been recognised by few countries, including the United States as the legitimate interlocutor for the uprising. However, the SNC is anything but democratic and some opposition figures active in Syria do not work with it. There is also a number of decentralised ‘Local Coordination Committees’ that draw together unorganised, predominantly young, protesters who document the protests and are spread across the entire country.
The FSA, claiming to be made up of defectors from the Army, are estimated to be ranging from 1,000 to 25,000—the actual numbers are uncertain. There are also claims that the majority of the members are civilians, who had taken up arms much before the formation of the FSA, rather than Army defectors. What is clear is that the FSA does not have a traditional military chain of command and is more an umbrella organisation for disparate fighting groups. It cannot issue orders to any of the groups. Further, by all accounts, the military wing of the opposition, spearheaded by the FSA, is not aligned with the political wing. This disconnect can only be redressed by strong leadership that brings all the disparate groups into a cohesive whole. If it is not addressed now, the situation is bound to deteriorate to religious sectarianism very soon. Avoiding sectarianism is perhaps the most important factor to achieve a united front for the opposition, particularly so after the eventual fall of the regime when the minorities will step up the fight against whoever comes to power. The Civil War will not end with the fall of the regime. There is also an element within the opposition that advocates peaceful protests, which goes completely against the grain of the armed struggle. Disagreements and rivalries are bound to fester, even after the primary goal of the overthrow of the current regime has been achieved.
Sectarianism, Kurds and Salafists
Far from being a united effort to rid the nation of autocratic rule, the participants in the rebellion that has led to Civil War have very dissimilar objectives to achieve after the regime has been brought down. This situation will invariably lead to sectarian stand-off and end in violence. This situation has also provided the Government with the opportunity to foment sectarianism with an aim to bolster support for its actions as well as to divide the opposition. The al-Assad family belongs to the minority Alawite sect, which is a derivative of Shiite Islam that itself comprises only an estimated 12 per cent of the Syrian population. This makes them a minority within a minority, although they have maintained complete control over the nation from 1970, when the current President’s father Hafez al-Assad seized power. Therefore, it is in their interest to ensure that the Alawites and the Shiites view the current Civil War as a sectarian struggle rather than one for independence and democracy and to believe that defeat would lead to total disenfranchisement and even annihilation. This fear is not unfounded.
The situation of the Kurds is interesting. They form only about 10 per cent of the Syrian population and have suffered discrimination for a long time, with even Syrian nationality being denied to them from 1962. At the very beginning of the protests, the Government made the shrewd move of granting citizenship to as many as 200,000 Kurds in an effort to keep them away from the uprising. The Kurds as a people are spread across Turkey, Syria and Iraq in contiguous areas. They have used the Syrian uprising to initiate preliminary moves to create an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. Turkey fears that this region will be used as a base from which attacks against it will be mounted to revive the long-standing demand of Turkish Kurds for an autonomous region of their own. This has to be viewed in the background of the fact that Turkey has been battling a long and bloody insurgency by the Kurds in its South Eastern region that have left an estimated 40,000 dead so far. This is compounded by the emergence of a truly autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq. At least for the present, the Kurds in Syria seems to be hedging their bets and cautiously keeping out of the on-going struggle, although they have forced Government troops out of the major towns in the Kurd dominated areas. This is seen by the Kurds as the first move towards the creation of a Syrian Kurdistan. Watch this space in the aftermath of the fall of the al-Assad regime.
The Salafists are an altogether different lot, with a different agenda and supported by a different set of nations who themselves have different reasons for providing such support. The Salafists are ultra-orthodox Muslims who share a vision of recreating the society as it existed under the earlier Caliphs (between 630-670 AD). It is pertinent to note that the Salafists themselves are divided over the methodology to be adopted to bring about such a society. They operate with comparative freedom in Lebanon and some areas of Syria, support the Syrian opposition and are heavily funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They also have significant political influence amongst the Sunnis. The Salafists do not find much support amongst the urban and more secular population, but are seen to be gradually increasing their influence in the Sunni majority areas of the region. Because of their access to funds and weapons, the Salafists have obtained a favourable stance from the Syrian armed groups. However, they have not yet managed to garner sufficient political support to press forward their Islamist agenda. By all accounts the Salafists are preparing for a long struggle that is more than likely to degenerate into sectarian violence after the fall of the Assad regime. For the time being, the Salafist leadership emphasises their tolerance of the Christian minority in Syria and their willingness to negotiate a political understanding with them. However, it is almost certain that the Levant is heading towards a violent reshaping of its political and more importantly, religious landscape. The Syrian Civil War is only the beginning, and by itself is still evolving.
The Foreign Interest
The Syrian uprising has been generally seen as a proxy war between the Sunni (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) and Shiite (Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon) nations of the region. This is a simplistic appreciation. From the very beginning of the protests, it was clear that a number of regional as well as international entities have a direct interest and stake in the final outcome. Therefore, there are bound to be conflicting influences of different hues and at different levels that intersect almost on a continuous basis within the milieu of the Civil War. The United Nations have been hamstrung in their attempts to bring about a peace deal because of the opposition of both Russia and China to any action that they believe are inimical to the ruling regime. They have their own reasons for this stance, and viewed in a dispassionate manner, these reasons are perfectly understandable. However, there is also a belief that direct intervention, as was done in the case of Libya, would create a situation that might escalate the conflict into a full-fledged regional war with dire consequences.
Turkey provides overt assistance to the opposition—it provides refuge to dissidents, and it hosted the opposition convention in Istanbul. It has also been reported that Turkish Intelligence is arming at least some of the opposition fighters. Although wary of the Kurdish Movement for autonomy, Turkey has steadfastly supported the opposition and after a Turkish Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter jet was shot down by Syrian forces, the support has become well entrenched. A number of nations have severed diplomatic relations with Syria and the United States has even granted a non-governmental organisation licence to fund the FSA. The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Hamas in the Gaza, as well as al-Qaeda and its affiliates have all voiced support for the opposition. There is also general belief that al-Qaeda has also been involved in bomb attacks against government forces. From February 2012, there has been increased evidence of foreign fighters, primarily linked to al-Qaeda having entered the fight against the Assad regime. Although substantial aid, both in finances and weapons, has started flowing to the opposition, it is still too early for it to impact the fight on the ground.      
The staunchest support for the Syrian Government comes from Russia and to a lesser extent from China, both of whom have continually vetoed UN Resolutions against the regime. Russia has been providing weapons even after the Human Rights Watch had warned that such action would be tantamount to assisting in the commitment of crimes against humanity. However, in July 2012, Russia announced a stop to any further arms transfer, but immediately thereafter, it stationed a large task group that also contains landing ships with marines on board in the Mediterranean. What is it that makes Russia want the Assad regime to survive? First, Russia has an inherent fear of the influence of Sunni Islamism spreading to the Muslim states of Central Asia, on Russia’s periphery. Second, it prizes access to the port of Tartus, which is home to the only Russian naval base outside the former USSR and is fundamental to Russian influence in the region. Third, Russia cannot acquiesce to any further degradation of its influence in the Middle East, which will definitely be the result of the fall of the Assad regime. Russia, therefore, stands firm on its rejection of any foreign military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. There is another consideration that must be voiced—does the West, clamouring for intervention realise that any external military action in Syria will make the carnage in the nation demonstrably worse? It is easy to pass a resolution in the UN, but hard work on the ground to ensure that the spirit and letter of the Resolution is followed to ensure the recipient people’s advantage.
Iran is the other intangible factor. It has supported the Assad regime from the beginning and recently reverse-coined the phrase ‘the axis of resistance’, to indicate the grouping that would withstand the initiatives of the West, led by the US, to bring about regime change in Syria. Iran has been the principle supplier of weapons to Syria and it is also reported that Iranian forces are fighting alongside the Syrian Army in some areas. Iran uses Syria as a conduit for providing materiel support to Hezbollah and cannot afford have their logistical hub closed down. Further, a Sunni Islamist Syria will increase the isolation of the Persian nation, as well as change the façade of the Levant to its disadvantage. The Iranians have repeatedly warned of any foreign interference and could be provoked into illogical action if any such action takes place. On the other hand, the US and its allies view the defeat of the Syrian Government as an important step towards further curtailing Iranian influence broadly in the region and particularly in the Gaza strip and Palestine. The battlelines are drawn, and stakes are fairly high, at least for Iran. Any miscalculation on either side can lead to unfathomable catastrophe.
China and Venezuela are the other nations supporting the incumbent Government—China through exercising its considerable influence in the UN and also by being a transit hub for arms shipment to Syria from other sympathetic nations. Venezuela has been providing huge quantities of diesel to Syria for the Government to continue operating its war machine and has also openly expressed support for the Assad regime.
What Happens Next? Crystal Ball Gazing
There is belief in many quarters that the tide is turning in favour of the opposition. This may not be the case. The opposition is definitely getting more organised, but their fighting capacity is still not of a calibre that can defeat the Syrian military forces. Further, the Government has until now been able to maintain and even deepen a sectarian rift, by creating the fear of an existentialist threat to the Shiite minority if a regime change takes place. Their loyalty therefore will always be with the Assad regime, which will translate to even last ditch battles much after the eventual fall of the regime. On the other hand, the Government forces have been extremely brutal and have taken the fight to the Sunni majority, creating a sort of apprehension about the outcome in their minds. A combination of these two factors will ensure that there are no winners, at least in the immediate future.
Having said that, it is certain that a government led by Assad will not be able to rule Syria peacefully from here on; as long as the current regime stays Civil War will rage. An invisible line has been crossed and the time for a negotiated settlement, for both sides to meet half-way, or for one side to back down and accommodate the other, is long past. So what are the future prospects for Syria? By creating an internally displaced Sunni population of nearly two million, the Assad regime has ensured that the Civil War will be a fight to the end. Because of the sheer number imbalance that end can only be the fall of the current regime. At the same time, the fall of the regime is far from likely to bring immediate peace.
There are a number of groups now involved in the actual fighting as well as in generating resources and creating sympathetic opinion for the opposition. However, considering the bloodshed that has taken place, predominantly borne by the revolutionaries, it is highly unlikely that any of the external elements, even if they are expat Syrians, would be welcome to share power after the fall of the regime at least for some time in the future. The SNC does not seem to be acceptable as the agency to lead an interim government that will hopefully manage the nation’s transition to elections, democratic governance and stability. There has not yet emerged any acceptable group or leader who could unite the disparate groups involved in the opposition. Therefore, post-Assad stability is by no means assured. 
There is a new sense of urgency noticeable in the Western world to stop the Civil War that can only happen with the removal of the Assad regime. They also sense that the rest of the world is looking on them and wondering why the alacrity with which the concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ was invoked in the case of Libya is not being shown in the case of Syria. The fact that any visible action has yet to materialise erodes the credibility of the Western world as far as their ‘humanitarian conscience’ is concerned. However, even a Libya-like intervention is unlikely to succeed, considering the opposition of both Russia and China in the UN, the difficult geographical situation of Syria vis-à-vis military over flights and the very clear antagonism of Iran to any external action. On 11 August 2012, UK announced a grant of nearly $ 8 million in non-lethal aid to the opposition in the hope of influencing the future leadership positively. It was also announced that the aid would be conditional to the FSA and other groups adhering to the norms of human rights. This is where the calculation is bound to go wrong. Both sides in the Civil War have so far violated human rights and this is unlikely to stop. As to how the UK is going to monitor and, more importantly ensure, that human rights are held sacrosanct is unclear. Therefore, this aid seems to be a partisan approach to the conflict without even the sanctity of a trumped up UN Resolution. The belief that the Western world will continue to try and roughshod over other regions, at will, is only going to be reinforced. There is also concern in the West regarding the stability of the nation in the immediate post-Assad period. This should be a genuine concern, since the indications are that there will be a turn towards sectarian violence at the fall of the regime. The minorities—Shiites, within them the Alawites, Christians, Kurds, the Druze—are on edge and fear for their safety. There is a clear danger of ethnic massacres and even the most optimistic observer can only hope for it to be kept to a minimum. At this moment, the scale of such massacres, that will invariably take place, cannot be predicted and will depend completely on the activists on the ground. Ethnic cleansing is a clear possibility and therefore, the return of the displaced people, both internal and external, will be delayed exacerbating the challenges that large number of refugees pose in a region.
Post-Assad Syria is bound to be chaotic. In a world that adheres to reason—an utopian dream in itself—post-Assad Syria should be a democracy that is responsive to the people’s aspirations in a ‘secular’ manner. However, this is a farfetched dream. What the opposition will inherit is a fragmented and failed state at war with itself with a very high probability of descending into ethnic and religious conflict. The repercussions will be felt not only in the region, but also across the world. The current Civil War is definitely the end-game for the Assad regime, which will fall sooner rather than later. But it will not be the end of instability, but only the beginning of what could prove to be a protracted religious-ethnic conflict, perhaps more brutal and reprehensive than the current war. Syria and the Levant will not be the same ever again. 
             

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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