Syria


A quick note about this. I would say that events on the ground may well have shortened that wall I last discussed considerably.

Neil MacFarquhar does a good job of asking, and at times answering, the big questions. It does seem to me that he puts too much emphasis on the bombing being in Damascus. A regime can survive for a long time with low-grade insurgent violence in the capital – it can lead to successful ethnic cleansing, as happened in Baghdad – but the idea that the inner circle – and not just the Sunni components – may be cracking is a threat.

My friend may think Assad has a year at least, but I think he may be operating under a few assumptions as to how much in control of the Alawi he is. The Alawi have really staked much on the Assads, but i think if it seemed worth while to them, if they felt vulnerable enough or if an alternative seemed alluring enough, they would abandon him. The idea shouldn’t be dismissed, at least, that Assad will fall far quicker than a year. What is to come after, though, may not make many here or there too happy.

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It would seem that the elite defections are starting in earnest now in Syria. The Syrian ambassador to Iraq has resigned and defected. Fares’ defection, along with the earlier defection of Gen. Tlaf, plays into the narrative of the crumbling regime in the ways that we’ve seen before, for example in Libya. I tend to be in the camp of thinking that the writing is on the wall for Assad, but the question is, how long is that wall?

Are these two high-profile defections bellwethers for immanent collapse of the regime? I think, perhaps, not. Unlike Libya, you don’t have NATO adding pressure with military force. That sped up everything. Plus, despite what the mainstream media is saying about Tlas being a personal friend to Bashar and Fares being an important, senior diplomat, it may be that what we’re seeing here is a result of the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian revolt.

Tlas and Fares are Sunni, and the armed opposition is increasingly majority Sunni and radical. These defections show that the Sunni elite that has existed just outside the inner Alawi core is crumbling. That’s not good for Assad, but it doesn’t spell doom just yet. If anything, I would expect the lines to harden. Assad has no compunction using extreme violence and force to sustain his rule, and the core around him may well be prepared to go as far as necessary as a means of keeping the Sunni bogeyman at bay.

Then again, such a situation may be ripe for a palace coup, as Reva Bhalla and Kamran Bokhari have pointed out in Strafor (via Josh Landis’ site).

So, more crumbling at the edges, but the wall still stands. For how long? A friend with good insight says at least another year. Half the military and the entire diplomatic corps could defect in that time. Assad’s state may shrink before it falls.

Vali Nasr had an interview with CFW on the violence in Syria and its implications. Nasr has become a sort of go-to expert for all things Middle Eastern and politically Islamic in recent years, which is slight departure from his true expertise: Islamism in Pakistan. I have no problem with generalists or in someone using expertise in a specific area more broadly—critical thinking is an asset to be broadly applied, and Vali Nasr’s is a first-class intellect—but Nasr seems to me to intentionally play into the media spotlight and he sometimes loses fidelity to “ground truth” by focusing on epiphenomena.

The Shia Revival was misunderstood by the grand public as a threat by an upsurging minority bent on political dominance across the Middle East, threatening all that we understood (or thought we did) about the balance of power in that region. The misunderstanding as has much to do with King Abdullah of Jordan’s coining of the term “Shia crescent” as it does the habit of the general public not to fully read books or to latch on to sensational aspects of them. Really, all he was pointing out was that religion still mattered, that it had political effects, and that it mattered in the Middle East in terms of the old split between Sunni and Shia. This was just the local manifestation of what Samuel Huntington had pointed out ten years before in The Clash of Civilizations, where he argues that such identity politics would become the norm. Both books elide nuances in order to make a larger argument on a grand scale, but like with other grand theorists, there’s something there that nitpicking the details doesn’t dispel.

In this piece, I think Nasr is right in his overarching argument that the violence in Syria is part of a reshuffling of power between interests groups more so than a fight for democracy, but he misrepresents the sectarian and ethnic divisions in antebellum Syria as being a case of minority repression. Unlike what Nasr states here, the Alawi in Syria have not exerted tyrannical control over a mostly Sunni population; the Assad regime, which is Alawi, has exerted tyrannical control over the entire Syrian population, which is mostly Sunni.

The Alawi population owes much to the regime—it derives social and economic privilege, and by some reports, its entire identity now derives from the regime vice any theological or cultural distinctions—but the regime derives little from the Alawi. Alawi make up a large percentage of military elite, but the business and other elites are Sunni or Christian, etc.

Syria is a complex tapestry. That’s an overused expression, but in this case (as with Lebanon) it’s a good one as the whole society is knitted together, knots on knots, with no real sense of how the whole thing hangs together beyond faith. Ok, maybe not a tapestry; more like macramé.

I mentioned that the UN “blue hats” had moved into their HQ in Damascus the other day, but I didn’t go too far into assessing the implications of their presence. To that end, it is worthwhile to ask what exactly they are there to do and for whom?

Right now, the UN mission is to monitor the ceasefire and to prepare the way for the  arrival of 100+ more monitors and possibly peacekeepers.* Once in place, those peace keepers would… well, that remains to be seen, but going by precedent, they would somewhat reduce the severity of the most obvious violent abuses. Along the way, they may damper the sense of urgency felt by the international community to do anything further. It is highly probable that the Syrian regime will try to manipulate the UN presence – showing them what the regime wants them to see and justifying their own actions to the world as being under UN oversight. So, for whom are the monitors and potential peacekeepers acting? I’ll score that to the Syrian regime and the international community writ large with half a point to the Syrian people, who might get slightly less killed.

Also, while I mentioned Iran’s motivations in playing along – they will be good international community members when that means helping their lackey regime survive – I failed to mention the other big outside interested party: Russia. Russia is the Syrian regime’s most powerful security guarantor aside from Iran, and in terms of keeping the international community at bay, they dwarf the Iranians. Iran provides money, arms, and a certain amount of legitimacy through force. Russia provides all that plus FSB security training and cooperation, a large well-trained military able to swoop in and save them, plus a UN veto.

What does Russia get out of its relationship to Syria? The port of Tartous. Tartous hosts a soviet-era naval base still in use by the Russian navy. Russia finds this arrangement very much to its liking. As the very last Russian outpost in the Arab world, and a very useful Mediterranean port, it is unlikely that Russia would be willing to easily part with this and would be willing to do almost anything to prevent the Assad regime – which allows Russia to use the base in thanks for Russia forgiving Syria’s enormous debt – from falling. Does this mean that the issue is hopeless and that Russia will automatically prevent the international community from acting in Syria? No it does not, but it is a major factor with which to contend for anyone trying to do so.

*Update: in my first posting, I stated that UN peacekeepers were slated to follow the monitors. While that is certainly possible, I do not believe that’s been resolved; only more monitors are to set to follow. Any peacekeeping actions would need a further UN resolution.

Unlike for much of the past in writing about the Middle East, where the challenge was in trying to make old subjects seem new, the current challenge is in picking just one thing to discuss at a time. It seems that more has happened in the past year than happened in the past thirty. Right now, we have presidential election challenges in Egypt, unrest in Yemen, state-building in Tunisia and Libya, and governmental reform and efforts to redefine the status of women in Morocco, just to name a few. For today’s entry, however, I will stick to my guns (as it were) and discuss Syria.

The UN set up its observer HQ in Syria yesterday and today has gone about trying to do what the Arab League could not – monitor peace efforts. From the initial reports, things aren’t going so well. Neither side is cooperating fully, which is hardly a surprise when you stop to think that neither side hopes to gain much by doing so.

The Annan plan is arguably more favorable to the regime, which it leaves in power with only promises to reform (promises the regime has already shown it is quite willing to break), but even a little movement in that direction could have disastrous consequences for it as its survival depends upon remaining unchallenged. It holds no basis for power other than the power it already has. Meanwhile, the opposition gains nothing from the compromise unless the regime were to do a complete about-face and genuinely open up the system to reform, which as I just said, would be fatal.

I’ve thought for a while that the writing was on the wall for Assad – that his abandonment by Turkey spoke volumes as does Iran’s desire to play for time by supporting the Annan plan – but a friend of mine with access to good information has maintained that he would weather the storm. Lately he’s slightly shifted his position saying that he still thinks Assad will survive but that he may become little more than the mayor of Damascus and Aleppo when all is said and done. I don’t give good odds at such a situation working out well for the mayor for very long.

So if the plan helps no one involved, why are both sides making efforts to abide by its terms (even though they are failing to fully do so)? Both sides think they stand to gain by waiting, that time is on their side. Both are right in different ways. The regime can steadily grind down the opposition, destroying their homes, their lives, and their livelihood. The opposition gains popular support the more the populace sees that the regime cannot win outright and, if the deals go through, money and possibly arms from outside interested parties (namely, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states). Their fighters also get better with practice. In the short term, then, both sides see a good opportunity to regroup and resupply. I predict this ceasefire is a temporary halt and not the beginning of serious peace efforts.

Kofi Annan’s negotiated ceasefire between government and opposition forces in Syria may have taken hold today. It’s reported that most violence stopped and both sides were holding themselves mostly in check, a few scattered incidents with no reported casualties aside. However, in contravention of the agreement, the Syrian regime has not made any effort to pull back its tanks and other forces. It also imposed some extra conditions in the eleventh hour, like written agreements from the opposition groups to surrender their weapons.

Writing for the Council of Foreign Relations, current Director of Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy  Tamara Cofman Wittes (former US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, before than, Brookings Fellow, before that Director of Programs at the Middle East Institute, where she once turned me down for a job but gave me some splendid advice while doing so) says that the “one thing that could make a real difference is if there were a more unified and concerted pressure from the international community.”

The case of Libya shows what a difference international intervention can bring, but outside support is not the only thing that could change the balance inside Syria. The biggest problem Syria’s opposition faces is not the disunity of the international community but the disunity of its own members. There are several opposition groups, the largest of which is the Syrian National Council (SNC), formed in January as an umbrella group along the lines of the National Transitional Council in Libya and headed by the Paris-based sociologist Burhan Ghalioun, but it is unclear how broad or study an umbrella the SNC truly is and there are other opposition groups besides. The SNC was partly coerced into blessing the main military opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the two don’t work as one and there are many in the SNC (including Dr. Ghalioun) who dislike the sectarian, Sunni/Salafi character of the FSA (Josh Landis has argued that this can only increase). Unlike what transpired in Libya, the various opposition groups have not genuinely joined forces and the militias are not following any real chain of command. Unless they do, it would be difficult for them to have much chance of success.

Another thing that could shift the balance is for the business elite within Syria to abandon the regime. They have stuck with Assad and his crew thus far because they have benefited tremendously from their patronage; however, if they were to be convinced that the regime is not their only or best means to prosperity, and that switching sides would secure their futures, then the Assad regime would be in real trouble.

There are also the other minorites to consider. The Christians and Kurds (both Shia and Sunnia) have largely stayed out of the fighting, unsure of how things will go and not wanting to incur the regime’s wrath should the opposition fail. Bringing them into a more-unified opposition camp would change the calculations of success.

Several things could change the situation inside Syria and give the opposition a better chance of success, but the Annan plan – praised by all with the dubious qualification of being the only plan there is – is actually a pretty good deal for the regime and has little to offer the opposition. Still, it doesn’t answer all the regime’s concerns either. Were the regime to give ground to the opposition, it perhaps fatally undermines its own ability to survive.