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Syria: Which road for Damascus?

The pressure to ‘do something’ about the killings and repression in Syria is immense. Phyllis Bennis cautions against simplistic answers

July 22, 2012
17 min read


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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The short Syrian Spring of 2011 has long since morphed into something close to full-scale civil war. If the conflict escalates further, it will have ramifications far beyond the country itself. As the former UN secretary-general and current UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan put it, ‘Syria is not Libya, it will not implode; it will explode beyond its borders.’

The one outside approach that could help ease at least the immediate conflict – serious negotiations in which both sides are represented – for the moment remains out of reach. Annan has proposed a joint diplomatic initiative that would include the Syrian regime’s supporters, Iran and Russia, as well as the US-dominated western countries and those Arab and other regional governments backing the armed opposition.

But so far the US has rejected the proposal, at least regarding Iran, with secretary of state Hillary Clinton saying that Tehran is part of the problem in Syria and thus can’t be part of the solution. The current UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who frequently reflects Washington’s interests, further undercut his own envoy’s proposal, saying that Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad has ‘lost all legitimacy’ – diplomatic code for ‘we don’t have to talk to him’.

Yet this isn’t Egypt or Libya, where opposition to the leader was overwhelming. Despite his government’s history of brutal repression, Assad still enjoys significant support from parts of Syria’s business elites, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, and some in minority communities (Christian, Shia, parts of the Druse and even some Kurds) whom the regime had cultivated for many years. The opposition was divided from the beginning over whether their goal was large-scale reform or the end of the Assad regime. It divided still further when part of it took up arms and began to call for international military intervention. The nonviolent opposition movement, which still rejects calls for military intervention, survives, but under extraordinary threat.

There is no question that the regime has carried out brutal acts against civilians, potentially including war crimes. It also appears the armed opposition is responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians. It is increasingly difficult to confirm who may be responsible for any particular assault. The UN monitors, whose access was already severely limited, have been pulled from the field. The regime has allowed a few more foreign journalists to enter the country, but restrictions remain and the fighting is so severe in many areas they are often unable to get solid information. The Syrian army is clearly responsible for more attacks with heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, but it is also clear that the anti-government forces are being armed with increasingly heavy weapons, largely paid for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and coordinated by Turkey and the CIA. Indications are growing of well‑armed outside terrorist forces operating in Syria as well.

Accountability, whether in national or international jurisdictions, is crucial – but stopping the current escalation of violence and avoiding all-out war must come first.

Sectarianism on the rise

Syria is erupting in a region still seething in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. While most US troops and mercenaries have now left, the legacy of destruction and instability will last for generations. One aspect of that legacy is the sectarian divide that the invasion and occupation imposed in Iraq – and as that divide extends across the region, the threat of increasing sectarianism in Syria looms. Although the Assad regimes – from father Hafez’s rise to power in 1970 through his son Bashar’s rule since 2000 – have always been ruthlessly secular, Syria remains a poster-country for sectarian strife. The ruling Assad clan are Alawites (a form of Islam related to Shi’ism), ruling over a country with a large Sunni majority.

If the increasing sectarianism of the Syrian conflict extends beyond its borders, it could lead to regional conflagration involving even greater refugee flows and potentially battles in or around Syria’s neighbours, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, or elsewhere. Already, alongside the international power interests colliding in Syria, there is the beginning of a Sunni–Shia proxy war taking shape, with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing opposing forces to Shia Iran.

Targeting Iran by proxy

Iran’s role makes that emerging proxy war even more dangerous. At a time of continuing US and EU pressure, and Israeli threats against Iran, Syria is a tempting proxy target. Syria itself isn’t a significant oil producer, and Washington has been far more concerned about keeping its borders secure for Israel and reducing Iranian influence than with getting into the country itself. Damascus’s longstanding economic, political and military ties with Tehran mean that efforts to weaken or undermine Syria are at least partly aimed at undermining Iran, by destroying Tehran’s one reliable Arab ally. This is perhaps the most influential factor pushing the US towards greater action against Syria.

Certainly the US, the EU and the US-backed Arab Gulf governments would prefer a more reliable, pro-western (meaning anti-Iranian), less resistance-oriented government in Syria, which borders key countries of US interest, including Israel, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. They would also prefer a less repressive government, since brutality has helped bring protesters out into the streets, leading to instability. But for the moment, despite the US involvement in helping its allies arm the opposition, conditions in the area still make a direct Libya-style US/Nato military strike on Syria unlikely.

The US and its allies are all too aware of the consequences for their own interests of direct military involvement – based on what they see now in post-Gaddafi Libya. That model in Syria would result in greater instability in the core of the strategic Middle East; expanding regional sectarianism; chaotic borders adjoining Israel, Iraq and Turkey; extremist Islamism gaining a foothold; and the end of any potential diplomatic arrangement with Iran. In Europe, there is no ‘attack Syria’ pressure equivalent to the political pressure on French and Italian leaders to intervene in Libya, following the PR fiasco of their overt colonial-style disdain for the earlier uprising in Tunisia.

For Turkey, among the most active supporters of arming the opposition, Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish plane could lead to stronger calls for military intervention. But so far, while Ankara’s call for a Nato ‘discussion’ of the matter means risks of escalation continue, the uncertainty of whether the plane was over international or Syrian waters has led both governments to moderate their responses.

So at the moment it still appears unlikely the Obama administration would risk an attack on Syria without UN endorsement. And that is simply not going to happen in the near future. China and Russia have both indicated they oppose any use of force against Syria, and so far they are both opposing additional sanctions as well.

Russian opposition goes beyond Moscow’s usual resistance to security council endorsement of intervention anywhere in the world. It goes to the heart of Russia’s strategic national interests, including its military capacity and its competition with the west for power, markets and influence in the Middle East. Russia’s relationship to Syria more or less parallels the US relationship to Bahrain: Damascus is a major Russian trading partner, especially for military equipment, and most crucial of all, hosts Moscow’s only Mediterranean naval base (and only military base outside the former Soviet Union), in Tartus, on Syria’s southern coast.

Of course there are no guarantees. Politics still trumps strategic interests. The risk of a US/Nato attack on Syria remains, and the threat could be ratcheted up again in an instant. This isn’t about humanitarian concerns. But the ‘CNN factor’ – the relentless depiction of all-too-real, heart-wrenching suffering – creates a political reality that influences decision-making in Washington, London, Paris, Ankara and beyond. As the violence escalates, as more civilians, especially children, are killed, calls for intervention, some real and some cynical, escalate as well.

In the US and Europe, the media and politicians’ earlier embrace of the armed opposition has subsided somewhat in the face of reports of opposition attacks and resulting civilian casualties. But anti-Assad propaganda remains dominant. And Washington is in election mode, so the pressure to ‘do something’ is strong. Calls for military intervention are coming from the media and some in Congress, from neo-cons who never gave up on their plans for regime change across the Arab world, and from hawkish liberal interventionists who again see military force as a solution to every humanitarian problem.

There are also prominent opponents of military force inside the White House and Pentagon, who recognise it would create worse problems for US interests (even if they don’t care much about the impact on Syrian civilians). Whether they can stand up to election‑year ‘do something’ pressures remains unclear. The push‑back by those in civil society who say no to military intervention, while refusing to accept the mechanical ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ claims that the Syrian regime is somehow a fraternal bastion of anti-imperialist legitimacy, will be crucial.

Syria and resistance

Syria’s position, geographic and political, and the resulting interest in it from outside actors, makes things very complicated. The country lies on the fault lines of the Middle East and there is a crucial divergence between the role the Assad regime has played domestically and its regional position. As Bassam Haddad, co-editor the Arab Studies Institute ezine Jadaliyya, has written, ‘Most people in the region are opposed to the Syrian regime’s domestic behaviour during the past decades, but they are not opposed to its regional role. The problem is the Syrian regime’s internal repression, not its external policies.’ That opinion could describe the view of many Syrians as well.

Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, the target of Syria’s original nonviolent protests was not a US-backed dictator but a brutal though somewhat popular leader at the centre of the anti-western resistance arc of the Middle East. That led some activists to lionise the Syrian government as a bastion of anti-imperialism and to condemn all opposition forces as lackeys of Washington.

The reality is far different. Certainly the US views Syria, largely based on its alliance with Iran (and somewhat for its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon) as an irritant. But Damascus has never been a consistent opponent of US interests. In 1976 it backed a massive attack by right-wing Falangists and other Christian militias on the Palestinian refugee camp at Tel al-Zaatar during Lebanon’s civil war. In 1991 it sent planes to join the US war coalition to attack Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. After 9/11, George W Bush collaborated with the Assad regime to send innocent detainees such as Maher Arar to be interrogated and tortured in Syria.

It is also crucial to note which important US ally has been uncharacteristically silent regarding the Syrian uprising: Israel. One would have expected Tel Aviv to be leading the calls for military intervention and regime change. But Israel has been largely silent – because despite the rhetorical and diplomatic antagonism, Syria has been a generally reliable and predictable neighbour.

The occasional small-scale clash aside, Assad has kept the border, and thus the economically strategic and water-rich Golan Heights, illegally occupied by Israel since 1967, largely quiescent. As late as 2009 Assad was offering Israel negotiations ‘without preconditions’ over the Golan. And further, Assad is a known quantity. Despite Syria’s close ties with Iran, Israel has little interest in a post-Assad Syria like today’s Libya, with uncontrolled borders, unaccountable militias, arms flooding in and out, rising Islamist influence, and a weak, illegitimate and corrupt government ultimately unable to secure the country. For Israel, the ‘anti‑imperialist’ Assad still looks preferable.

Origins, impacts and consequences

The Syrian uprising that began in early 2011 was part of the broader regional rising that became known as the Arab Spring. Like their counterparts, Syria’s nonviolent protesters poured into the streets with political/democratic demands that broke open a generations‑long culture of fear and political paralysis. Like those who mobilised against US-backed dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, the Syrian protesters were both secular and religious, reflecting a wide diversity of backgrounds and opinions. There were calls for democratisation, demands that long-silenced voices be heard, and for immediate and massive political change.

For some that meant that the regime must end. Some were willing to negotiate with the government without Assad. Still others called for broad reforms, ending political repression and opening the political system, within the existing governing structures. But at first none called for military intervention.

Then, like in Libya, some in the Syrian opposition, particularly military defectors, took up arms in response to the regime’s brutal suppression. The defensive use of arms morphed into a network of militias and fighters, largely unaccountable and uncoordinated – some of whom later began to call for military assistance.

The impact of a military strike in Syria could be catastrophic. Syria’s conflict poses far more complex challenges than even Libya, where even the supporters of military intervention do not claim it to have been an unqualified success. Inside Syria, the nature of its diverse economy, its strong middle class and the once relatively small gap between Syrian wealth and poverty all mean that the regime maintains some level of legitimacy despite years of political repression. Assad appears to maintain significantly more support than Gaddafi had in Libya. His regime’s own minority status strengthens claims it is protecting other Syrian minorities. And the tight links between the ruling family and military mean that despite significant numbers of increasingly high-level military defections, the government and top military command appear largely intact.

For ordinary Syrians, struggling to survive amid escalating fighting, with virtually no access to electricity, clean water or medical assistance in more and more areas, the only hope starts with ending the fighting. The best – probably the only – useful thing outside powers can do would be to move immediately towards serious new diplomacy, in which supporters of both the regime and the armed opposition participate, with the goal of imposing an immediate ceasefire. Kofi Annan’s call for just such a diplomatic option could be the start, if Washington could be pressured to reverse its opposition.

This wouldn’t solve all the problems that led to the Syrian crisis. This kind of diplomacy would not reflect all the diverse interests of the Syrian people – but it would stop the current escalation towards full-scale civil war, and perhaps open enough political space to re-empower the nonviolent democratic movements. It will only work if it is kept out of the UN‘s currently popular ‘responsibility to protect‘ (R2P) framework, which inexorably pushes towards the use of outside military force.

The best the Annan plan could achieve would be to bring enough pressure to bear on the two principal sides (assuming the US/western/Arab monarchy side and the Russian/Iranian side could agree on a goal) to reverse the current military escalation. There would then need to be a ceasefire lasting long enough to force real negotiations between a re-empowered internal opposition and the regime on some kind of political transition. Finding agreement between the diplomatic sponsors, let alone between the different interests within Syria, will obviously not be easy.

But only with an end to the war will the original unarmed opposition forces have a chance to remobilise public support for the internal, nonviolent protest movement for real change, reclaiming social movements for Syria’s own freedom and democracy, and reasserting Syria’s place in the Arab Spring.


Who’s who in the Syrian uprising

The regime

Power is largely concentrated in the extended Assad family and broader Alawite community, while political leadership is closely interconnected with top military command and mukhabarat (secret police). The regime also maintains support from key business and banking powers in Syria, especially in Damascus and Aleppo. It has political support and some military assistance from Iran. Recent expressions of political support have come from the ALBA countries of Latin America (Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela) in the context of US and other western threats. It has key military and commercial ties with Russia.

The original nonviolent opposition

Broad and diverse, secular and faith based, many activists came together in new informal coalitions that bypassed older, more staid organisations. They remain opposed to arming the opposition and especially to outside military intervention. These activists were the primary force of the early uprising but had less visibility as the regime suppressed protests, international media were largely excluded and internal independent media focused primarily on attacks on civilians.

Public mobilisations, including but not limited to street protests, appear to be increasing again, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, once relative strongholds of regime support. In April a young woman stood alone outside the parliament in Damascus with a banner that read ‘Stop the killing, we want to build a homeland for all Syrians.’ Islamist forces are among those involved in the nonviolent opposition, including long-time Syrian nonviolent leader Sheikh Jawad Said.

The nonviolent opposition also includes the National Coordination Committee, made up of 13 political parties, including some leftist forces, and independent, mainly secular activists. Their leader, Hussein Abdul Azim, has said: ‘We reject foreign intervention – we think it is as dangerous as tyranny. We reject both.’ They do, however, support economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The NCC does not call for overthrowing the regime but for a national dialogue – conditional on the pullback of military forces from the streets, ending attacks on peaceful protests and release of all political prisoners. Some in the NCC have called for trying to replace the Syrian National Council (see below) as the recognised representative of the Syrian opposition.

The internal Syrian armed opposition

Originally based on military defectors who created the Free Syrian Army, the armed opposition morphed into assorted militias using the FSA name, but with little central coordination; it includes both defectors and armed civilians. FSA leaders have admitted they are not in control of the proliferation of groups of armed civilians operating under the FSA name. The number of soldiers reported killed has escalated recently, as have reports of direct fights between regime soldiers and armed opposition groups. Heavier weapons appear to be arriving from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey is providing logistical support and the US is supplying ‘non-lethal’ military equipment, including night-vision goggles and GPS gear.

The internal/external supporters of the armed opposition

Grouped primarily in the Syrian National Council (SNC), the supporters of the armed opposition call explicitly for the overthrow of the regime. They include the Muslim Brotherhood (probably the most organised group), local coordination committees (grassroots activist groups inside Syria), Kurdish factions and others, including exile factions. The SNC originally claimed to defend the nonviolent nature of the uprising but later called for a coordinating role over armed factions inside Syria and control of all weapons going in. The FSA rejects this and says it wants weapons supplied directly. At least some SNC leaders are calling for outside military assistance. The SNC recently asked individual countries to provide the Syrian opposition with ‘military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves’.

Very diverse politically, both secular and Islamist, the SNC has had continuing problems with achieving enough unity to engage with international forces. There are consistent disagreements over Islamist influence. Despite divisions, uncertain leadership and questionable levels of support from inside Syria, the SNC has been adopted by western (US, parts of EU) and Arab Gulf (Saudi, Qatar) governments and to some degree Turkey. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said: ‘They will have a seat at the table as a representative of the Syrian people.’

Non-Syrian armed forces

Outside forces, including from international Islamist fighting groups, appear to be arriving to fight in Syria. Goals unclear, could include opposition to Alawite/Shia government (Alawites considered an off-shoot of Shia Islam, and thus heretical to some extremist Sunni fundamentalists), and/or efforts to create chaos through military attacks resulting in power vacuums they might hope to fill.

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Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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