Syria, A regime in its comfort zone?

Proponiamo un passaggio tratto dall’ultimo rapporto dell’International Crisis Group intitolato Syria’s Phase of Radicalisation, che si rivela particolarmente interessante perché fornisce una visione della rivoluzione siriana attraverso la prospettiva del regime.

(Il rapporto completo è disponibile in pdf a questo link).

Viewed objectively, the difficulties faced by the regime appear virtually insurmountable. Internationally, it is more isolated than ever, backed solely by its few traditional allies and Russia, unenthusiastically followed by China. Politically and ideologically, it is bankrupt. Once the self-proclaimed vanguard of resistance to U.S. imperialism and Israeli hegemony, it is clear beyond doubt that its only cause is self-survival, a goal it is prepared to pursue by waging war against its own people and, in the process, exposing the country to foreign interference.

Previously viewed by many citizens as a necessary guarantor of national unity, Bashar Assad has become an intensely polarising figure, adulated by some and reviled by others. Regime ties to large sectors of society are broken, its hold on broad swathes of its territory at best tenuous. Even if it survives the crisis, it likely will not recover the ability to govern effectively and will enjoy few options but to rule through terror. Slowly but surely, its military capacity is eroding, a result of a trickling stream of defections, declining recruitment and plummeting morale. The economy is devastated and will remain so for the foreseeable future. In particular, the agricultural sector has been disrupted by conflict, fuel shortages and the disappearance of state services; by some estimates, the country soon will run out of food.[1]

These realities notwithstanding, the regime has not indicated it intends to shift course. It has scheduled parliamentary elections in May, hoping to sustain the fiction of political reform. It reiterates its offer of dialogue with opponents and can be expected to continue doing so – at the same time as it detains or intimidates even the most moderate among them. All the while, the regime almost certainly will maintain its war of attrition against protesters and armed opposition groups, seek to contain them, roll them back and gradually drain the support they enjoy from a society it intends to push to exhaustion. The human and material toll likely will be immense, though the regime in all probability will seek to avoid the kind of single, large-scale bloodbath that would evoke memories of Hama, 1982, and could prompt international military intervention.

In interviews with Crisis Group conducted over the past several months, officials, pressed on the need for dramatic change, have offered various arguments to explain the regime’s steadfastness and intransigence.[2]

To begin, they point out that the ultimate goal of domestic and foreign opponents alike is not to reform the regime but to topple it; as a result, far from quelling the unrest, more far-reaching concessions would only embolden the opposition, weaken the regime and precipitate its demise. They insist additional reforms will come only once the situation improves – however hollow that promise must ring to the large number of Syrians who insist the regime has done nothing in over 40 years except reactively and under pressure. In truth, and in several respects, the regime is partially doing today what it ought to have done a year ago, when popular demands were more moderate and pragmatic: relaxing the Baath party’s dominant role; introducing a measure of controlled pluralism; and taking steps toward a slightly more representative government.[3] Reformists within the system make the case that, modest as they are, these nonetheless are significant concessions that ought to be pocketed and built upon. To no avail: by this point, many Syrians harbour far deeper grievances that such measures cannot come close to satisfying.

Officials likewise contend that the regime never was given a chance. As they see it, Western countries wrote it off before it could even begin to respond and then did their utmost to exacerbate the crisis. The Arab media distorted the picture, exaggerated wrongdoings and encouraged unreasonable popular demands. By swiftly seeking regime change and rejecting dialogue until violence ceased, they say, the opposition shut the door on a political solution. Some go further, contending that Syrians abused by the security services ought to have shown restraint rather than overreact and aggravate the situation; had they had national interests in mind, the argument goes, they would have known better than to wreak havoc. However mystifying they might seem, such views are widespread among regime officials and supporters whose contempt for their kin’s predicament is itself a symptom of deep-seated social and/or sectarian prejudice. No amount of suffering, they believe, can justify destabilising the country. All in all, officials reject any accountability, identifying culprits far and near while absolving themselves of responsibility.

Together with regime sympathisers, they also tend to put a very low ceiling on what one can realistically expect given the nature of the power system. Issues critical to any genuine political solution – those touching upon the presi-dent’s legitimacy; the ruling family’s role; and the security services’ behaviour – are defined upfront as off limits, at least until the regime fully restores stability, at which point it is hard to imagine why it would agree to broach them. Even a matter as urgent as the status and conduct of the shabbiha is considered taboo, insofar as confronting it would puncture the regime’s core narrative – namely that it is seeking to restore law and order, not to divide and rule. Some regime insiders concede the need for a future national reconciliation process, albeit one that would entail the people forgiving the regime (for crimes that ought better be forgotten); the regime forgiving the people (for challenging the system and provoking mayhem); and everyone reverting to normalcy. There is virtually no chance this can work.

Some more pragmatic voices within the power structure complain that the current nature of the uprising – including its calls for toppling the regime and executing its president; invitation of Western pressure; rejection of dialogue; and militarisation – has empowered regime hardliners. It has made life easier, they say, for those within the leadership and security services with a vested interest in escalating repression and who know that any serious political track inevitably would come at their expense.[4]

Altogether, according to this logic, the outside world and domestic opposition ought to be more “reasonable”, stop pushing for dramatic change and hope to transform the regime over time. In like manner, they insist the regime has learned its lesson and that it cannot continue as before – yet, even as they do, they stress that reforms must take place very gradually in a society unprepared for drastic change. In the end, they offer the prospect of a country ruled by the same president, family and security services – a hard sell for the large number of Syrians who believe this ruling class has thoroughly failed, dispossessed, humiliated, tortured and murdered its people in unimaginable ways. In so doing, pragmatic regime elements ironically undermine pragmatic opposition members who, while supportive of a more gradual process of reform, are systematically discredited by such unwillingness to contemplate serious com-promise. The net result has been to negate thus far the pos-sibility of a political, negotiated track.

That said, the most fundamental reason for the regime’s obstinacy lies in its conviction that the situation is not as dire as may seem.

In the regime’s eyes, the international community has remained polarised and powerless even as repression escalated dramatically. Weeks of pounding of Baba ‘Amro did not provoke any change. To the contrary, Russian support has proven steadfast, some vocal criticism notwithstanding;[5] as seen from Damascus, the U.S. began to soften its position. In a variety of official utterances, it assessed that the regime was gaining ground;[6] expressed concern over the prospect of civil war; pointed to risks associated with military intervention[7] and arming the opposition;[8] and highlighted opposition disunity[9] as well as a growing jihadi presence.[10] Again from the regime’s perspective, the two gatherings of the “Friends of Syria” – the first in February, in Tunisia; the second in Turkey in April – failed to produce any tangible or concrete results.[11]

As the regime sees it, Annan’s mission, far from present-ing a threat, can be a way to drag the process on and shift the focus from regime change to regime concessions – granting humanitarian access, agreeing to a ceasefire and beginning a vaguely defined political dialogue, all of which can be endlessly negotiated and renegotiated. The 21 March UN Security Council Presidential Statement was an indication of international support for the mission; still, from the regime’s vantage point, it hardly constituted a genuine shift in the global set up, but instead reflected a stalemate and a license for the regime to do more of the same.

To date, Damascus’ reaction has been in line with its traditional posture: it took some time before accepting Annan’s six-point plan (including a commitment to political negotiations, a UN-supervised ceasefire, guaranteed humanitarian access, the release of detainees, freedom of movement for foreign media and respect for the right to peaceful demonstrations); is dragging its feet regarding implementation;[12] injecting conditions (such as the end to all opposition violence); and exploiting (if not provoking) spikes in violence to stall the process. Annan appears to be relying heavily on Russian support, which is the right course. However, here too one can anticipate Syria’s playbook: it is likely to respond somewhat more positively to Moscow than to others in order to reward it for its support, consolidate the bilateral relationship and demonstrate that, by contrast, Western bullying cannot work, all the while avoiding any significant step. The end result risks being a tedious, superficial process that will require painstaking diplomatic efforts merely to keep it alive.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pledged to arm the opposition, raising the prospect of a more battle-ready rebel force. Yet, to date, there is scant indication of their having delivered on their promise;[13] nor is there any evidence of impact on the ground. As the regime sees it, they will face considerable logistical hurdles in transferring weapons, not least the absence of an obvious transit route through neighbouring states.

In Lebanon, all political players appear in agreement that the paramount objective should be to preserve the domestic status quo and that any serious involvement in the conflict next door would produce the exact opposite.

Turkey harbours Syrian military defectors and reportedly tolerates significant arms smuggling; but that is qualitatively different from open partnership with Gulf states with whom Ankara has mixed relations and whose role is marred by perceptions of an overwhelmingly sectarian, fundamentalist and anti-Iranian agenda. As a result, Turkey arguably will prefer a less energetic profile at least in the absence of a far more forward-leaning U.S. posture and will seek to preserve broader appeal among Syrians, avoid par-ticipating in a proxy war that could backfire on its own territory – in particular were Syria or Iran to retaliate by arming the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – and keep its rivalry with Tehran within bounds.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears keen to se-cure the Syrian border from weapons smuggling, fearful of the consequences of the Sunni-led opposition gaining power in Damascus and – once the Arab League summit in Baghdad was over – prepared to verbally assault Gulf Arab countries over their Syria policy.[14]

Of all Syria’s neighbours, Jordan arguably is the most plausible option. According to media reports, King Abdullah has been pressured by Riyadh to allow his country to serve as a conduit for weapons to reach the opposition, promising substantial economic assistance in return.[15] Although so far Amman is said to have resisted, fearful of being dragged into a dangerous conflict, it is at least open to question how long this will be so, given the Kingdom’s difficult economic and political situation.[16]

Yet, even assuming significant quantities of weapons end up in opposition hands, the regime might feel it has little reason to worry. In Libya, the massive NATO air campaign almost certainly did more to defeat Qadhafi’s forces than whatever assistance was provided to rebel groups; even then, it took months to achieve victory. Syria’s sectarian dimension arguably could speed things up, encouraging ever growing numbers of military personnel to defect once armed opposition groups gain control of territory; but it is as likely to slow things down, bolstering the resolve of well-armed and highly motivated regime supporters. Plus, the regime’s allies could be expected to step up their own involvement if the conflict becomes a full-fledged regional proxy war.

The regime initially displayed intense concern regarding the exiled opposition. So far at least, it has not materialised as a serious threat, failing to consolidate as a unified front or secure international intervention. Over time, it has lost support within Syria itself, a result of its inability to produce practical results or develop a coherent political vision. Arguably, and in certain respects, it has become a regime asset, evidence of the absence of a credible alternative.

By the same token, the protest movement early on first presented a genuine challenge, particularly as it expanded across geographic, social and communal lines. Yet, over the past year, the regime essentially has figured out a way to control it. Oblivious to human costs, security forces have acquired considerable expertise and self-confidence in dealing with it. Routine demonstrations throughout the country, flash protests in the capital and occasional large-scale outbursts of popular frustration – as recently occurred in previously quiet areas such as the upscale Damascus neighbourhood of Mezze, central areas of Aleppo and the north-east town of Raqqa – have had no visible impact on the regime’s ability to endure. A Tahrir Square-like protest could well shake regime foundations; however, although the potential for such an occurrence exists, the authorities have honed the tools to prevent it.

The emerging insurgency likewise currently is perceived by the regime more as irritant than genuine menace – a point poignantly brought home by the relentless recapture of previously “liberated” territory. In this respect, a pro-found divide separates the authorities’ discourse and its actual threat perception. Local media endlessly evoke a powerful global conspiracy aiming at Syria’s destruction; in private, officials dismiss the opposition armed groups’ capabilities, writing them off as community-based vigilantes joined by a relatively small number of defectors and largely devoid of foreign backing. For the regime, heightened criminality and emerging civil war dynamics do not justify a change in approach, insofar as they do not endan-ger the power structure. Similarly, officials portray bombings as signs of opposition despair, radicalisation and even marginalisation. More than that, such attacks fit comforta-bly within the regime’s overarching narrative and attempt to equate the current uprising with the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency of the 1980s – a conflict it both weathered and survived and as such a precedent very much on ordinary Syrians’ minds.

Lastly, it is dubious that the economy’s slow collapse will prompt significant concern or recalculations among deci-sion-makers. The Syrian pound’s plummeting value paradoxically has reduced the state’s foreign currency expend-itures, postponing its bankruptcy; indeed, public service salaries have been halved as the dollar’s local value doubled. Delays in salary payments, declining basic services, fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices have barely affected the course of events or the opposition’s effectiveness. In a highly mobilised society, whoever potentially could be tempted to protest has done so already; economic hardships are unlikely to draw many more to the streets. The near-total breakdown in local administration, education and health care that has affected several areas of the country is of little consequence to a regime that for now appears to have given up on any objective other than survival. As for the ruling family, it can readily shift its business interests from the legal economy to other, equally lucrative black market opportunities.

All of which explains the striking discrepancy between the extreme and growing anxiety expressed by regime sympathisers on the one hand and the increasingly unflappable confidence projected both publicly and privately by their leaders’ discourse and body language on the other.[17] The latter tend to inhabit a zone of psychological comfort, readily shifting all blame onto others; perceiving no immediate threats either to them or to their lifestyle within narrow, protected enclaves; bolstered by the blind and adulating backing of hardcore supporters; convinced that the international community will do very little; and persuaded that the balance of power has shifted in their favour over the past several weeks.

None of this means that the outcome of this conflict is clear, the protest movement is defeated, the insurgency will be crushed, the international community will long eschew direct military intervention or the regime ultimately will prevail. Already, the struggle has evolved through several stages, over the course of which Assad has forfeited virtually all previous assets, save the ability on the one hand to repress and on the other to hold his supporters hostage to the threat of all-out civil war. The regime cannot truly “win”; what it might do is endure, with core structures – family rule and repressive apparatus – basically intact even as all else gives way. From its own perspective, of course, that may well suffice.

For its sympathisers, however, much of what they dread from a transition likely will take place even without one: enduring instability and terror; economic devastation; deepening sectarianism; accelerating Islamisation (as the regime makes concessions to placate the religious establishment); rising fundamentalism; and greater subjection to foreign influence (as the regime becomes increasingly dependent on longstanding allies and ever more vulnerable to traditional foes). Moreover, what liberties they enjoyed before the crisis almost certainly will be curtailed as the security services, empowered by the ongoing confrontation, consolidate their control. Alawite fears of potential violent, sectarian Sunni reprisals might abate, but at the cost of condoning – or actively engaging in – large-scale crimes that will further alienate them from a majority of Syrians and thus further endanger their future.

Still, despite an objectively catastrophic situation, the regime currently feels strong.24 Hardline officials who call the shots are reinforced in their conviction they are on the right track. The prospect that such a path could well lead to a failed state suffering a humanitarian crisis in a dangerously radicalised and polarised society almost certainly will have scant impact on either their thinking or their course of action.[18]


[1] The National, 19 March 2012.

[2] Crisis Group interviews, Syrian officials, Damascus, September-March 2012.

[3] See Crisis Group Briefing N°32, Now or Never: A Negotiated Transition for Syria, 5 March 2012.

[4] Crisis Group interviews, Damascus, February-March 2012.

[5] On 20 March, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “We believe the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appear-ance of peaceful protests and, despite making repeated promises in response to our calls, the Syrian leadership is making very many mistakes …. The things that it is doing in the right direction, it is doing late. This, unfortunately, has in many ways led the conflict to reach such a severe stage”. Reuters, 20 March 2012.

[6] General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, said that regime forces were “gaining physical momentum on the battlefield” and assessed that Assad “is going to be there for some time because I think he will continue to employ heavier and heavier weapons on his people”. Quoted in The Washington Post, 6 March 2012.

[7] General Mattis described any U.S. or international air opera-tion against Assad’s forces as “challenging”, because Russia has provided Syria with “very advanced integrated air defense capabilities – missiles, radars, that sort of thing”. Ibid. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff strengthened the point by stressing that the air defence capabilities were located in populous neigh-bourhoods, thereby increasing the risks of heavy civilian casualties in the event of a U.S. attempt to take them down. Associated Press, 7 March 2012. At a 6 March press conference, President Obama himself weighed in against those urging immediate military action: “For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake …. This is a much more complicated situation [than Libya]”. He added: “The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military, you know, that hasn’t been true in the past, and it won’t be true now”. See www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/06/press-conference-president. A U.S. official explained that, while things could well change in the face of growing violence and a stalled diplomatic effort, “right now, neither Obama nor [Secre-tary of State Hillary] Clinton is in favour of military action. And the Pentagon is even more adamantly against it, which is why they are putting out all these accounts of how risky a military strike would be and how robust it would have to be. It’s not that the president doesn’t want to do something; he’s been pushing for options for quite a while. But the Pentagon has briefed him on what it would take to implement any of the military options being discussed (safe haven, humanitarian corridor and the like): massive airstrikes to take out Syria’s air defences. Those are extraordinary in scope, far beyond even North Korea’s. The regime has invested in them for years and has the latest in Russian technology. Of course, we could take [them] out. But according to the Pentagon, “it would take some two months of very intensive airstrikes, which inevitably would cause heavy civilian casualties given where Syria has placed them – in a relatively narrow part of the country, but where it counts. Crisis Group interview, Washington DC, March 2012.

[8] General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “I think it’s premature to take a decision to arm the oppo-sition movement in Syria because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point”. Yahoo News, 21 February 2012. U.S. officials expressed their concern about arming the opposition, citing their lack of knowledge about who the opposition was; the fear dangerous weapons could fall into dangerous hands; concern about possible inter-opposition strife or that weapons could be used for retalia-tion against Alawites or others; and anxiety that armed groups might gain access to chemical weapons storage facilities in Syria. In addition, they said, it would take a long time for the opposition to be in a position to challenge Assad’s forces, even assuming a considered effort by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In the meantime, regime forces would go after them even more ruthlessly. Crisis Group interviews, Washington DC, March 2012.

[9] A U.S. official said, “the SNC [Syrian National Council, an op-position umbrella group] had revealed itself to be dysfunctional, with members often more interested in fighting among each other over office space and positions than in putting together a genuine transition plan”. Some colleagues were far less severe, though all acknowledged it had been a disappointment so far. Crisis Group interviews, Washington DC, March 2012.

[10] Dempsey said, “there are indications that al-Qaeda is involved and that they’re interested in supporting the opposition …. And until we’re a lot clearer about, you know, who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them”. Yahoo News, 21 February 2012.

[11] Western officials take a different view of the Istanbul conference in particular, which they see as having marked a step in providing material support for the opposition. See below. In the “Chairman’s Conclusions of Friends of Syria meeting” (the Istanbul conference), participants called on Annan to develop a  “timeline for next steps, including a return to the UN Security Council, if the killing continues”; “agreed to develop a multilat-eral initiative to support international and Syrian efforts to document, analyze and store evidence of serious violations of human rights”; and “committed to continue and increase, as a matter of urgency, its assistance, including funding and financial support, to meet the needs of the Syrian people”. The full text of the communiqué is at www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view= News&id=749074282.

[12] On 2 April, Assad reportedly told Annan he would start implementing the plan; by 10 April, he is supposed to halt troop movement into cities, withdraw heavy weapons from cities and start to pull back troops. Naharnet, 2 April 2012. The Syrian foreign ministry subsequently announced that it would not do so before opposition armed groups pledged in writing to give up their weapons, and before hostile states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar guaranteed that they would discontinue any support extended to them. Syrian Arab News Agency, 8 April 2012.

[13] According to most observers, the rebel’s weapons come pri-marily from Syria itself – from regime depots taken over by the opposition; from defectors; or from officials willing to make some money. Crisis Group interviews, analysts, U.S. officials, April 2012.

[14] In response to Saudi calls for arming the opposition, he said, “we reject any arming [of Syrian rebels] and the process to overthrow the [Assad] regime, because this will leave a greater crisis in the region …. The stance of these two states [Qatar and Saudi Arabia] is very strange .… They are calling for sending arms instead of working on putting out the fire, and they will hear our voice, that we are against arming and against foreign interference …. We are against the interference of some countries in Syria’s internal affairs, and those countries that are interfering in Syria’s internal affairs will interfere in the internal affairs of any country”. He added: “It has been one year and the regime did not fall, and it will not fall, and why should it fall?”, The Daily Star, 1 April 2012.

[15] The Wall Street Journal, 30 March 2012.

[16] See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°118, Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (IX): Dallying with Reform in a Divided Jordan, 12 March 2012. According to The Wall Street Journal, a senior Jordanian official said, “we are a non-interventionist country. But if it becomes force majeure, you have to join – this is the story of Jordan”, 30 March 2012.

[17] Crisis Group interviews, February-March 2012.

[18] Jihad Maqdisi, the Syrian foreign ministry’s spokesman, felt confident enough to formally announce that the “battle to tear down the state” was over. Syrian Arab News Agency, 1 April 2012. A sense that the regime has recently regained a stronger foothold is prevalent among sympathisers, allies and opponents alike. Crisis Group interviews and communications, regime supporters and opposition activists, March 2012. This sentiment was reinforced by statements by a key regime ally, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah general secretary. On 30 March, he asserted that pro-spects of international intervention in Syria had subsided, that arming the opposition was no longer an option and that the forceful overthrow of the regime had failed and no longer was possible. Naharnet, 30 March 2012.