The Syrian Revolution: A Report After 15 Months of Conflict

Without a more unified and coercive strategy from the international community, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will likely remain in power for the immediate future.  The rebel Free Syrian Army will continue to grow in both strength and capability, yet the Assad regime will limp along under the protection of Russia and the cohesiveness of Assad’s elite military units.  15 months into the conflict, the Syrian uprising that was once viewed as another chapter in the Arab Spring revolutions has deteriorated into a sectarian-based civil war—one that has grown bloodier under a divisive UN Security Council.

After pouring through new streams of information and reviewing the evidence, US and European intelligence officials are now revising their original assessment about the staying power of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  What was once depicted by western policymakers as a government quickly running out of cash and on the brink of collapse is now portrayed by those same officials as a regime that will be able to stay in power for at least another full year. 

All of the intelligence agents spoke on background to The Washington Post a few weeks ago, some of whom are closely involved with monitoring the situation in that country.  The collective judgment, based upon the article, is that Bashar al-Assad is far more resilient in the face of international pressure than previously believed.  Or, as one official from an unnamed Middle Eastern intelligence service testified to the paper, “Our view now is that Assad will survive 2012 unless there’s a big surprise…He has cleaned up Homs and Hama. Damascus is quiet. The Druze and Christians haven’t turned against him. Even the flow of refugees we’re seeing confirms that he is succeeding.”

Indeed, after fifteen months of being under a microscope from his own people and from the world at large, Assad has a reason to feel confident.  The regime’s most highly trained and equipped military units are under the direct control of Assad’s family and closest friends—ensuring that a significant proportion of the Syrian armed forces sticks with the president’s circle.  Tens of thousands of conscripts and officers have deserted from the ranks of the army, but the fighters under the nominal banner of the Free Syrian Army remain outgunned and undermanned.  The Assad’s strategy of depicting the Syrian revolutionaries as “armed terrorist groups” bent on establishing an Islamic state has so far had its desired effect of scaring Syria’s minority communities (Alawites, Christians, Shia, Ismailis, and some Kurds) enough to avoid joining the opposition.  And while there is little inclination that jihadists are taking over the FSA or its leadership, the mysterious suicide bomb blasts that have rocked neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo over the past five months have given all of these communities more reason to believe that the regime is the only obstacle to a Sunni fundamentalist takeover.

Apart from the killings and destruction of entire towns and villages across the country, the one dynamic that has thus far separated the Syrian revolt from the successful revolutions elsewhere in the region is the international community’s inability to find common ground.  Virtually every nation involved recognizes that there needs to be some kind of political change inside Syria; the problem is that the United Nations Security Council, as well as Syria’s neighbors, are unsure of how deep that change should go or how to carry it out.  It took weeks of haggling over wording to get the Russians and Chinese to support a UN monitoring mission into the country—a scheme that is increasingly looking like another round of fruitless diplomacy.  To the UN’s credit, the violence has technically gone down from before the UN entered the country, yet the dozens of people who continue to die daily is proving to be too much for those Syrians who expect the monitors to be more aggressive in confronting Assad.

The United States is talking about going back to the Security Council to try its hand in passing Chapter 7 sanctions against the Syrian Government; militarily-enforceable if need be.  Yet just as two previous resolutions were nipped in the bud by Russia and China, any measure that could pave the way for military force in the future will be resisted by those two powers.

All the while, the violence inside Syria is only getting more bold and sophisticated, despite Mr. Annan’s peace proposal.  What was once a low-grade insurgent campaign against Syrian security forces in the countryside has now snowballed into a lethal resistance movement that is taking its toll on members of the Syrian army and police.  From a purely tactical standpoint, this is a development that should be applauded, for while more regime supporters are being killed, protesters who were formally undefended now have some type of protection.

Unfortunately, it is becoming ever harder to distinguish where the violence is coming from and who is perpetrating it.  With the latest double suicide bombing in the center of Damascus killing 55 people and wounding over 300 more, the fears that many US officials have had about extremist groups joining the fray may be coming true.  Damascus was at one point in time one of the most culturally rich and peaceful cities in the entire region, with millions of tourists flocking to its grounds every year.  Now, the city is slowly exhibiting the same qualities that made life in Baghdad a living hell six years prior.  As of this month, a total of five suicide bombings have hit security buildings and regime patrols inside of Damascus, with the first attack last December killing over 40 people.  The latest explosion, designed to detonate near-simultaneously with a much larger payload of explosives (rumored to be over 2,000 pounds) is similar to many of the operations that Al’Qaeda has conducted in Iraq and Pakistan.

Experts on Syria have long argued that the revolution will get bloodier as the Assad regime continues to stonewall international attempts to negotiate a peaceful way out of the conflict.  The only thing that is certain, at least at this moment, is that despite the strong and brave resistance from his opponents, Bashar al-Assad still feels like he is winning this struggle.  With the combination of a conventionally weak resistance, divided Security Council,  a largely unified military and an efficient chain-of-command that follows presidential orders to a tee, Assad’s feelings may be justified.

In the meantime, the United States and its partners in the region would be wise to take note of a few trends in the uprising that have emerged over the past month.  Some developments, such as a significant protest inside Aleppo, could potentially stave off some of the crucial support that President Assad has counted over all these months.  But others, including a politically divided Syrian National Council, could very well make it more difficult for the regime’s opponents to attract domestic backing.

1-Demonstrators Rise Up in Aleppo

For the first time in the 15-month old revolt, Syrians in the city of Aleppo took the streets in massive numbers last May to protest a raid by the security forces a week earlier that left four students at Aleppo University dead.  Other students were picked up by regime forces and thrown into prison after the operation was completed, prompting thousands of angry students and residents of the city to speak out against what they claimed was an unprovoked, unnecessary, and brutal offensive operation and peaceful demonstrators.  It appears that this latest security operation.  Similar to dozens made across Syria every day, the awakening of Aleppo has elicited a response that Bashar al-Assad may have been unprepared for.

While the exact size of the Aleppo protests are hard to pinpoint, activists on the ground have claimed that approximately 10,000-15,000 people participated.  If these numbers are indeed accurate, it would suggest that the same residents who were once either apathetic or unsympathetic to the Syrian resistance are now finding themselves immersed in the action.  15,000 demonstrators in a city like Hama is not at all surprising, but for the same amount of people to come out in Aleppo could be a game-changer for the regime and a sign that Assad is starting to lose support from constituencies that he once depended on. 

Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, has been under the thumb of the Assad regime since the uprising began in March 2011; many of its residents have benefited from the regime’s economic policies over the past decade.  The Syrian army and police understand that retaining the backing or acquiescence of Aleppo would help bolster its case that the opposition inside the country does not have much domestic legitimacy.  The spread of street demonstrations in Aleppo would destroy that narrative and deal a major blow to Assad’s remaining support base.  The ironic part of this story is that were it not for the regime’s heavy-handed response to the initial protests on the Aleppo University campus, the vast majority of the city may still be in the regime’s camp.

2-Syria’s Political Opposition Still Struggling

The Syrian National Council, a group comprising seven different political factions within its umbrella, has continued to function without a strong sense of purpose.  Absent removal of Bashar al-Assad from power and the restructuring of the Syrian armed forces, many of the SNC’s top members on the Executive Committee are unsure of how to rebuild the country after the regime is gone.  Activists inside Syria, including the Local Coordination Committees, have threatened to leave the SNC entirely if decision-making is not subject to debate among all factions of the council.  A growing amount of protesters and fighters inside Syria today look at the SNC as a collection of figureheads who are more interested in their own positions of power than promoting genuine democratic change.  As one 33-year old protester in Damascus flatly said to a Wall Street Journal reporter, “The SNC doesn’t mean anything to me.  They don’t own this revolution.  If they can help us get to the end, fine.  If not, we’ll get there anyway.”

The resignation of Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the SNC who has been involved in Syrian democratic activism since the 1970’s, does nothing to put this sentiment to rest.  His resignation, which has been formally adopted by the SNC, apparently comes as a concession to other members of the bloc who have complained about Ghalioun’s autocratic style, in addition to his closeness with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.  In a smart move that could potentially convince Syria’s minority communities to defect from the regime, the General Assembly unanimously elected a secular Kurd, Abdulbasset Seida, to the position of the presidency.  While it is unclear how effective Seida will be, merely placing a Syrian minority in the top leadership position could have an effect in encouraging Syria’s Christian, Alawite, Kurdish, Assyrian, and Shia communities to switch sides and endorse the revolution’s campaign for a free society, without special privileges for certain ethnic or sectarian groups.  Whether the council can deliberate and function with one voice now that a new president has been selected is still an open question.  If they cannot, then there is a high probability that the SNC could lose the same global support it has been seeking since its formation last September.  The Syrian people, meanwhile, will be left with no coherent and internationally recognized political alternative to Assad’s regime.

All of this news comes as Syrian dissidents on the ground report of a renewed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood movement that is steadily increasing its influence within the SNC and within the Syrian population more broadly.  Mohammed Farouk Tayfour, the Vice President of the SNC and a chairman of the council’s relief committee, is the deputy leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood; ensuring that the Islamist movement is able to dole out cash, medicine, humanitarian supplies, and relief to people who are actually suffering from the conflict.  The Brotherhood has thus been given a direct link to the Syrians activists who have made the revolution possible.  Indeed, the Brotherhood has made such a remarkable comeback in Syria that it will be an imperative for US and European officials to consult with its leaders if a post-Assad Syrian state has any chance of providing the pluralism, equality, security and welfare that millions of Syrians have been fighting for.

3-Assad Remains Defiant in Front of the World

In his first television interview in nearly six months, President Bashar al-Assad showed no signs of abating his military campaign.  As the president has stated repeatedly since the conflict began last year, foreign terrorists and Al’Qaeda elements were to blame for the violence that has killed thousands of Syrians across the country.  Assad also had harsh words for countries in the region that have called for the regime’s downfall through the arming and financing of the Free Syrian Army: “For the leaders of these countries, it's becoming clear that this is not 'spring' but chaos. If you sow chaos in Syria you may be infected by it yourself, and they understand this perfectly well.”  In another insult to his opponents, he described the men and women fighting for his downfall as a collection of conspiratorials in league with terrorists whose main purpose is sowing chaos and establishing a new state with jihadist intentions.

None of these comments, of course, are particularly surprising to foreigners and Syrians alike.  The group calling itself the Free Syrian Army has long been relegated by the regime as a violent, bankrupt, and criminal organization funded by the west and Saudi Arabia.  Allegations by the Syrian President that foreign jihadists have entered the country from neighboring states is also unlikely to shock anyone; the coordinated bombings in Damascus since January give credence to the belief that some kind of Al’Qaeda element is inserting itself into the uprising.   Yet his latest remarks do serve the purpose of exploring his state of mind.  And if there is anything that can be taken away from his speech, it is that Assad is not even considering negotiating with members of the Syrian revolution.  Arrests, artillery attacks on rebel-controlled neighborhoods, the breaking up of protests, the deliberate massacre of civilians, and the use of media propaganda is the strategy that Assad will continue to use until the international community finds some way to increase the punishment. 

4-Fighting Spreads into Lebanon

As if the Syrian conflict could not get anymore destabilizing, the violence that was once confined within Syria’s borders has now spread into Lebanon, an Arab country that has been victimized by its own sectarian problems for its entire modern history.  As reported by The Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, and journalists on the ground, Lebanon’s Sunni and Alawite communities have begun to direct their weapons at one another over the politically divided question of who should win in Syria.  The northern Lebanese city of Tripoli was the first to experience renewed sectarian fighting, spawned by the arrest of an anti-Assad Sunni cleric, Shadi al-Mawlawi, by Lebanon’s General Security Directorate.  Upon word of the arrest, gunmen in a Sunni neighborhood of the city retaliated by shooting automatic weapons, with an adjacent Alawite community joining into the fight.  A total of eight people were killed in the clashes, which were drawn out over four to five days.

The shooting death of another senior Sunni cleric critical of the Syrian regime, Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, sparked another period of fighting in the Lebanese capital of Tripoli, which eventually died down after both sides stopped shooting in the middle of the night.

Two days later, a bus carrying Shia Lebanese pilgrims was stopped by armed rebels around the Syrian city of Aleppo.  The women were allowed to leave, but the eleven men were taken into rebel custody, purportedly to be used as bargaining chips for the release of their own men in Syrian prisons.  The captors have since issued their own statement saying that the men will remain in their custody until democratic change is introduced into Syria.

When taking into consideration how long the crackdown in Syria has lasted (fifteen months and counting), one would have thought that it was only a matter of time before Lebanon was sucked into the fighting.  Fortunately, the Lebanese Government has largely attempted to isolate themselves from the mayhem next door.  But with the Sunni and Alawite communities now stockpiling their own arms in expectation of further violence, US, European, and Arab policymakers may now have to consider how their decisions against the Assad regime will affect the security of the Lebanese people and the stability of a fragile, sectarian-based Lebanese coalition Government. 

5- No Holds Barred for Syria’s Armed Forces

Depending on which organization is providing the statistics, estimates of the dead in Syria range from the UN’s 9,000 to the over 13,000 reported by Syrian human rights groups.  Kofi Annan’s UN plan has not lowered the violence in any discernable way that would encourage reconciliation from either side; thousands of additional civilians have been killed since the ceasefire was put into effect on April 12.  President Bashar al-Assad had no intention of abiding by Annan’s agreement, knowing all too well that allowing peaceful protests and journalistic access to the country’s hardest-hit areas would be the beginning of his downfall.  Indeed, rather than comply, Assad has invested the safety of his family and the survivability of his regime through a combination of excessive military force and public deniability. 

The Syrian Government’s propaganda machine continues to churn out a theme that Syrian democracy activists and outside powers are now all too familiar with.  Official Syrian state television describes the Free Syrian Army as terrorists unleashing mayhem and killing Syrians at the behest of a mysterious foreign power.  At the same time, Syrian diplomats stand in front of the United Nations Security Council, reiterating its desire to end the conflict through peaceful means.  But the vast majority of the council—in addition to the majority of the General Assembly—have long seen through the Damascus fog-machine.  As the killings proceed and as the method of killing becomes ever more barbaric, the west, Turkey, and the Arab world are no longer taking Syria’s pronouncement seriously.  The acceptance, and then defiance, of the Annan peace accord only added to the sense that Bashar al-Assad was never interested in implementing the ceasefire agreement.

Yet even with all of the killing and the disturbing trend of massacres that have been levied on innocent Syrians—some only a few months old—the world remains inherently divided over what action would be appropriate to further tighten the screws on Assad and his military leadership.  Kofi Annan’s ceasefire has been dead upon arrival, but it provides members of the UN Security Council and the Friends of Syria group with a veneer of political cover that they can hide behind absent a more aggressive policy.  Outside of Annan’s six-points, the world has not been able to muster the political will necessary for an alternative that is both more proactive but ultimately riskier as well.     

6-The Free Syrian Army Ditches the Annan Plan

In what can be viewed as an example of the inefficacy of Kofi Annan’s peace efforts in Syria, the country’s main anti-Assad rebel force, the Free Syrian Army, formally disavowed the former UN Secretary General’s ceasefire initiative early last week.  The announcement is not necessarily a change in policy for the FSA; the rebels have been conducting attacks on Syrian army checkpoints despite the stipulations that require all parties in the conflict to stop shooting at one another.  But even so, the FSA declaration is significant, if only for the fact that the loosely grouped but steadily growing ranks of the armed opposition are now free to plan, coordinate, and launch attacks on regime outposts with even greater frequency and mass.

Indeed, with the FSA no longer bounded to Annna’s six-points, the rebels have used their newfound freedom to take the fight to the regime in areas that are widely considered to be government-held areas.  Last weekend alone, 80 Syrian soldiers were confirmed killed by rebel ambushes on checkpoints and convoys, a casualty rate that is by far the highest in a single battle since the FSA began operations last year.  The FSA has also seen the benefit in a rise of defections from the regular Syrian army, with many turning their weapons on their former employers, further gutting the lower ranks of an institution that Assad needs if he is to outlast the increased pace of rebel attacks. 

The insurgency has gotten far more resilient this year, both in quantity and the quality of their tactics.  On Saturday, anti-Assad fighters executed a series of operations against security buildings in Damascus, forcing the regime to use the same heavy weaponry that has been employed so often in Homs, Hama, and Dera’a to recapture territory and repel rebel offensives.  The security forces eventually succeeded in Damascus, killing or capturing most of the attackers in only a day, but the fact that the army had to call in mortar and artillery teams to flush out the insurgents is an example of strained the army has become.  FSA operations inside of Damascus may not succeed in their gaining territory, but what these attacks do accomplish is striking fear into the center of the regime’s power base.  From a military point of view, strikes in the capital also expand the range of territory that the Syrian army is forced to defend, redistributing resources from other regime operations in areas controlled by FSA brigades.  Sooner or later, a consistent stream of similar attacks could put further stress on the Syrian security forces, at best worsening their attrition rate and at best raising the financial and manpower costs of government counterattacks.

7-The UN Has Second Thoughts About the Mission

It has become common parlance in the international community that the presence of 300 unarmed United Nations observers has done little to stop the bloodshed.  US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice questioned the very purpose of the UN observers in an increasingly dangerous situation, calling them “sitting ducks” just one IED or shooting short of total disaster.  UN-Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan has also raised doubts about the viability of the plan that he put into effect over two months ago, expressing his concerns in private briefings with the UN Security Council that Syrian Government and opposition forces are not doing anything to tamper down the violence. 

General Robert Mood’s decision to suspend the daily patrols and active monitoring of the supposed ceasefire will only play into the narrative.  Raising alarm over the deterioration of the security situation, General Mood ordered the 300 observers to stop their work.  The actions of all parties, Mood said, was contributing to a level of killing that makes the safety of the UN monitoring mission increasingly difficult, if not impossible: “The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push toward advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides: innocent civilians, men, women and children are being killed every day…It is also posing significant risks to our observers.”

The suspension of the mission will be unlikely to have much of an affect on the overall state of the conflict, at least inside of Syria.  But there is a realistic possibility that the move will put an even greater amount of pressure on the United Nations to come up with a new alternative.  The Russians and Chinese have been especially vocal in their support for the UN’s presence—a position that allows both countries to portray themselves as constructive and proactive in the quest to end the violence.  With the UN mission now called into question, Russia and China will find it much harder to hide behind Kofi Annan.  Unfortunately, this may ultimately not matter in the long run; the chance that both will respond to this added weight by throwing Assad overboard remains low at the current time.

What Can the United States Do?

Throughout the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has gone through a significant number of policy changes, at first keeping tight-lipped when the Syrian people began to take to the streets.  The Syrian Government’s killing, which started almost immediately, galvanized the United States into a series of more aggressive statements.  Each act of violence against peaceful demonstrators brought with it another transformation of President Obama’s position.  Nearly five months after the initial repression, the White House called for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation for the first time in August of last year. 

Nearly a year later, the words and actions from the administration—and the international community at large—have gotten more hardline and effective.  Syria’s internal revenue is suffering dramatically after a series of unilateral and multilateral economic sanctions on Syrian financial institutions, promoted by Washington.  Millions of dollars have been sent to humanitarian groups inside of Syria who are ushering civilians away from conflict zones.  The US military has explored the prospects of military intervention in a variety of forms.  The Central Intelligence Agency, in the meantime, has partnered up with a select group of Arab intelligence agencies to determine the leadership, character, and trustworthiness of rebel forces across the country. 

With so many changes having occurred over the past 15 months, it has been difficult to figure out what US policy on Syria is.  But with the Syrian conflict adapting on a near weekly-basis, the Obama administration is right to keep all of its options open—producing a degree of flexibility that is absolutely essential for making the best of a terrible situation. 

The United States may be tying itself to diplomatic solutions in public, but with Assad instigating the war further by investing his survival on greater amounts of brute force, the White House would be best to create a multidimensional and multipronged policy behind the scenes to both aid in Assad’s removal and smooth the prospects for a post-Assad transition period. 

With the CIA now having established contacts with Syrians who are taking the fight to the regime, the United States is now closely involved with whatever happens to be the outcome.  As in all wars, intelligence contacts are essential in understanding how the fight is being conducted, which factions are the important players, and what the enemy’s (in this case, the Assad regime) weaknesses are.  Expanding outreach with and eventually facilitating the efforts of the FSA may be controversial moves from an American perspective, but it is still a far distance from the type of US military intervention that some lawmakers are calling for.  With advanced weapons being sent to Syria’s various anti-Assad militias, Washington’s vetting procedures on who should receive these weapons could not come at a better time.

Another step that the United States can take (if not already taking) is instigating as many defectors from Assad’s leadership cadre as is possible.  Tens of thousands of conscripted soldiers have already left the regular Syrian army over the past 15 months, but these defections as a whole have not shaken the core of the government that Assad needs as an insurance card for his family, fortune, and personal freedom.

The defections that will revoke that insurance card while having the quickest and deepest negative affect on the regime involve people who are considered senior-level commanders in the armed forces, as well as skilled technocrats embedded across Syria’s numerous ministries.  Collectively, each one of these individuals will be an important segment in any interim authority after Assad is gone and the opposition holds a chance to improve Syria as a semi-functioning state after many months of shelling, killing, mass exodus and sheer physical and psychological destruction.  What measures Washington can use to induce those defections are best left to officials in the White House and the State Department.  But whatever carrots are offered, the objectives should be the same: to deprive Bashar al-Assad of counsel and collect a pool of component people who can assist in administering the country on the “day-after.”

Courting some elements of Assad’s support structure is no doubt morally troubling.   Yet it also happens to be a pragmatic way to convince some of Assad’s remaining constituencies that they have a place in a future Syria.  The more likely this conviction resonates as genuine, the more likely that the solid walls protecting Bashar al-Assad will tumble.  If the effort is not made, then Assad will conclude that his strategy of pummeling his own people by force has the solid endorsement of his military chiefs and civilian advisers.

Conclusion

At this moment, the ceasefire agreement signed by the Syrian Government and the armed resistance is an obvious failure when viewed through the lens of its main objective: stopping the violence and bringing the opposing sides together for talks on a political transition.  Declaring the ceasefire a failure, however, puts an extreme amount of pressure on the United States and the Friends of the Syrian People grouping to come up with a different solution.  Annan’s deal with therefore grind on, with no discernable change in Assad’s behavior towards Syrians who continue to protest or towards an SNC that is unable to chart the course of a new era in Syrian politics without the Assad family.  To restate the popular notion that the collapse of Assad’s regime is inevitable is no longer an accurate depiction of the conflict.  The regime will most likely muddle through, despite concerted international isolation and an armed opposition movement that is challenging the mantra that the government is in full control of the country.  Absent a change in Russia’s relationship with Assad, the probability that the Syrian revolution will succeed in its ultimate objective is slim.  As the dynamics currently stand, the possibility of a once peaceful Syrian revolution descending further into a civil war—with sectarian, ethnic, and regional implications—is the worst, but most likely, option.

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