President Bashar al-Assad continues to defy regional efforts to broker an end to the violence in Syria. This week, Syria rejected the Arab League’s plan for a peaceful transition of power. And while the Arab League extended its monitoring mission in the country, the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries announced the withdrawal of their observers to protest the protracted crackdown.
In a Q&A, Yezid Sayigh looks at the ongoing conflict and examines the options for intervention by the Arab states and the West. Sayigh says that observer missions are unlikely to succeed, but will continue for the rest of the year as external military intervention is highly unlikely.
The observer mission will not succeed. It cannot succeed. The Syrian government is not willing to implement the full Arab action plan, which involves not just monitors, but releasing all detainees, pulling back all heavy troops and weapons, and ending the use of violence against demonstrators.
There was a whole set of measures set by the Arab League, some of which Syria has done partially, but we have no means of verifying how much they have done—for instance in terms of releasing detainees. It is clear that they have not really pulled their armed men out of city centers.
Civil war, in the proper sense of the term, involves the massive use of organized force by two sides, which go into total mobilization for the purpose of confronting the other side. Obviously, the Syrian regime has that sort of capability.
It hasn’t needed to use it so far—something like 75 percent of the army is believed to still be in its barracks because the regime doesn’t want to place large numbers of conscripts and ground forces face to face with their own people in towns and cities they may come from themselves and tell them to shoot people, perhaps even their own family. This is the sure recipe for the army to fall apart. We saw this in Iran in 1978 and 1979 for instance. The regime definitely doesn’t want to risk that.
On the other side, the main parts of the Syrian opposition have insisted on this being a peaceful civilian uprising in order to try and deactivate the use of violence, in which the government will always win. Also, the opposition has sought the moral high ground in showing that this is a regime that is not for the people because it shoots at its own people. However, there are defectors from the Syrian army; there are instances of people fighting back and shooting back at the government forces.
As long there are no safe havens or no-fly zones protected by external military power—by Arab states, Turkey, the United States, NATO—to which large units from the army could defect and find shelter, regroup, and reassemble, then there isn’t a military option for the opposition.
The stream of defections from the Syrian army has already slowed and been inhibited by the knowledge that—for a large numbers of troops or their officers who might otherwise defect—they have nowhere to defect to. At most they can run into the hills in the south or the north, maybe the border region near Turkey, or in some towns that are out of control, or perhaps neighborhoods of cities that have escaped government control. It is possible to hide small groups of men but that’s not a civil war.
As long as the government basically has full control of the ground, air, and the borders, and there is no assurance of external military cover or protective cover for anyone who defects to the other side, defections that might lead to a civil war are unlikely.
The Syrian opposition is very diverse and, one could argue, very disunited. There are a great many different groups. It took a long time to pull them together into even two or three main fronts and even then managing relations between these coalitions has not been easy. It’s been evident that personal and factional relations are not always comfortable or stable.
That said, the Syrian opposition has achieved reasonable success given the odds—that they have never been able to operate openly inside Syria and they are scattered outside Syria.
There are big questions about whether the Syrian opposition based on the outside is legitimate and this is always a problem. How can you survive under an authoritarian regime that won’t hesitate to throw you into prison or torture you? But if you go outside the country, then you lose direct contact with the people, you are not suffering the same things they suffer, and therefore how legitimate are your choices and policy preferences? So there are all these things that are challenges to the opposition.
What will help the Syrian opposition is that an opposition movement has emerged inside Syria. The coordination committees have lent a lot of credibility and legitimacy to the opposition outside Syria. And the fact that they finally managed to establish a platform between the inside and the outside has given them extra credibility and legitimacy—in front of foreign governments also. For example, when the Syrian opposition convened in Tunisia in December, it was precisely because they managed to reach a certain level of unity and of speaking with one voice that they had credibility.
However, my real concern is that in the coming year if the situation drags on in a sort of hurting stalemate, the opposition will face this dilemma of what to do next. The Syrian opposition is going to face extremely difficult discussions in the coming months and find it increasingly challenging to maintain unity and cohesion and agreement on a single platform.
I don’t think there is going to be any external military intervention in Syria, not from anyone and not from the Arab states for sure. There is no Arab state that has the military capability to intervene in Syria. Syria has a large army, something like a quarter of a million men; it has a lot of battle experience; it has effective weapon systems—at least comparable to what might be used against it locally.
Additionally, since Assad assumed the presidency, the Syrian army has undergone certain transformations in terms of developing special forces and encouraging types of new tactics and doctrines. So the question needs to be asked, “Who is going to take this on?” Western powers understand that it would be much more difficult to do in Syria what they did in Libya.
The West is stuck in a position where it’s not at all obvious what options it has. It doesn’t really have a military option, partly because Russia and China would veto a UN-based intervention and they would stand very firmly against a non-UN intervention, for example, under NATO terms. Additionally, Turkey wouldn’t go along with providing the sort of logistical support or deployment support that would be necessary to approach Syria with an intervention. And the Russian navy has been visiting Syrian ports in the last few months.
That leaves economic sanctions, which history has shown are extremely slow and inefficient and usually do tremendous damage to the local population without necessarily removing the regime. We talk about smart sanctions and targeted sanctions that are aimed mainly at the regime itself, which is good—at least the attempt is being made.
But the reality is that the League of Arab States did impose smart sanctions at the end of November, which still allow the movement of capital, trade, and goods that are important for the survival of ordinary people. But if that sort of flow continues, then the regime will probably be even more comfortable. You can prevent regime officials from traveling, you might close some of their bank accounts, but that doesn’t mean the end of the world for them.
So the dilemma for the West is that the only real options are either military or economic sanctions. And economic sanctions are extremely blunt instruments that are rarely successful and even then only after ten or twenty years.
The Syrian uprising is certainly very important in terms of the geopolitics of those who wish to confront Iran. Changing the most important Arab ally of Iran necessarily weakens Tehran’s geopolitical position.
There are those, including the Iranians, who feel that if Syria is lost to Iran then this is both a net gain to the Sunni Arabs on the one hand—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Egypt—but also offers a new opportunity for the expansion of Turkish influence and leadership because Turkey has very long historical, social, and economic ties with Syria. Until a year ago, Ankara had very extensive ties with Syria.
Post-conflict in Syria, Turkey will play an immense role. And from an Iranian perspective, this is highly undesirable and for several months already there has been this continual sort of campaign among Iranian propaganda outlets criticizing Turkey and saying that really they are doing America’s or Israel’s bidding.
Additionally, the chance that Iran loses Syria as an ally means Iran will focus all the more on securing its influence in Iraq. The current crisis in the Iraqi government between the increasingly Shia dominated prime minister’s position versus Vice President Hashimi, who is a Sunni, raises a whole range of questions that arise over the control of the armed forces and of oil, etc. These are all getting revived partly because of this tectonic shift.
Beyond that, just as people said while the Libyan conflict was ongoing that if Muammar Qaddafi survived it was going to be immensely important for other autocrats and other authoritarian regimes, we might say the same again. The survival of the Assad regime in Syria will have a knock-on effect for others in the region.
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