Once again, the quickening pace of events in Syria gives the impression that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is fast approaching its moment of truth. That the government’s days are numbered can no longer be in serious doubt, but just how many it has left remains an open question. The regime cannot win, but it certainly can resist and prolong the conflict. 

A flurry of reports in the second half of January depicted the Syrian leadership as increasingly unable to defeat armed challenges to its control over towns and neighborhoods—even those lying within the greater metropolitan area of the capital, Damascus. The diplomatic noose also appears to be tightening: The collective decision of the Gulf Cooperation Council member states to withdraw their observers from the Arab monitoring mission in Syria was immediately followed by the release of a new Arab League plan that called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer power to an interim president and a national unity government. Those forces would govern until parliamentary and presidential elections could be held within six months. The Arab League then suspended its observer mission altogether, although the Syrian authorities had already agreed to extend it for another month, and took its new plan to the United Nations (UN) for adoption by the Security Council.

Yezid Sayigh
Yezid Sayigh is a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where he leads the program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States (CMRAS). His work focuses on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces, the impact of war on states and societies, the politics of postconflict reconstruction and security sector transformation in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.
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This is the second time in as many months that the Syrian crisis has seemed to be building rapidly toward a tipping point under the impetus of much the same combination of events. In late November, the League of Arab States declared an economic boycott targeting the Syrian authorities, which was followed by a Western initiative, blocked by Russia and China, to impose United Nations sanctions. Calls multiplied for the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria or the establishment protected border safe havens for refugees and “humanitarian corridors” for the delivery of assistance to besieged populations inside the country. Reports of Syrian army defections surged in the first half of December 2011, as did claims of attacks on government forces and installations by the opposition's Free Syrian Army. For its part, the Syrian regime released “trial balloons” containing political proposals purportedly intended to demonstrate its willingness to reach a negotiated solution. It repeated that ploy in January 2012 by leaking reports that it had dispatched envoys to talk to the opposition abroad.

Yet dramatic change in Syria might not be imminent. The regime still has enough resilience and resources—social, economic, and especially coercive—at its disposal to delay its demise, though not to overcome its opposition. 

The critical factor is that, despite growing international pressure and anticipation, there will be no external military intervention prior to regime breakdown. Intervention could otherwise catalyze splits within the leadership and accelerate the defection of the regime’s middle-class supporters, tipping the internal balance decisively. But the League of Arab States, which has unexpectedly done more than any other external actor to isolate the Syrian regime and legitimize both domestic Syrian opposition and international action against the Assad government, has reached an impasse that is unlikely to be broken by the United Nations Security Council.

In the absence of external military intervention, the course of developments inside Syria will be shaped by the same legacy of state-society relations and political economy that determined where the uprising would start, spread, and so far remain: in the provinces, among rural populations, and among the urban poor. This not only explains the diverse and fractious nature of the opposition but also serves ominous notice that the more visible, civilian-based leadership structures may find themselves increasingly compelled to cede the lead in agenda setting to the Free Syrian Army. More worryingly, the power may go to the highly localized, inchoate, and potentially fractious forces that are spearheading the growing shift to armed struggle against the regime occurring in dozens of scattered locations around the country.

The legacy factor 

The nature of state-society relations in Syria, especially as shaped by and reflected in the country’s political economy, suggests that the same set of factors that currently enables disparate social groups to break free of government control also enables the regime to prolong its existence. 

Contrasting the Syrian situation with the Iraqi experience in the wake of the first Gulf War of 1990–1991 is instructive in this regard. Faced with simultaneous armed uprisings on two fronts—launched by the veteran Kurdish peshmerga in the north and by rebellious army units in the Shia-populated areas of the south—Saddam Hussein’s regime struck back viciously. The regime was subsequently able to survive the imposition of a UN-mandated northern safe haven and southern no-fly zone, constant patrolling and periodic strikes by coalition aircraft, and a grinding economic siege for the next twelve years—until the U.S. invasion in 2003. 

Nothing to which the Syrian regime has been subjected to date comes close to exerting this sort of pressure. More pertinently, however, the regime lacks the stranglehold over its people that its Iraqi counterpart had for decades, rendering it more vulnerable to collective disobedience on the present scale. 

From the early 1970s onward, if not before, Iraqis became increasingly, and ultimately overwhelmingly, dependent on the state for oil-funded employment, subsidies, and investment, which moreover enabled the regime to eliminate all but petty or crony forms of private enterprise. Under these conditions, the international ban on Iraqi oil exports after 1990 had the adverse effect of weakening society’s ability to escape the state’s net, while the regime devolved part of its coercive and welfare functions to loyal clans and even to Shia charitable organizations. 

Syria’s political economy is fundamentally different, with significant implications for the ability of the regime to confront or repress large-scale dissent. Lacking major oil revenue, the Syrian regime established by President Hafez al-Assad in 1970 sought to co-opt contending social forces—whether by liberalizing foreign trade and maintaining coalitions with both organized labor and business, or encouraging private enterprise in rural areas—rather than subdue them by brute force. Though, of course, he was ready to use indiscriminate violence on occasion, as he proved when he unleashed the Syrian army to crush an uprising in Hama in February 1982, killing 10,000 to 25,000 of its inhabitants in a mere three weeks. 

The result, by the late 1990s, was a bifurcated economy in which a large but increasingly decrepit public sector coexisted with a growing and energetic private sector, each governed by separate laws and administrative rules. Neoliberal economic reforms of 2003–2008 and the declaration of a “social market” economy in 2005 further diversified and fragmented Syria’s classes, while diffracting the central power structure. The provincial and district branches of the security agencies and ruling Baath Party became more extensively enmeshed in local economic networks. 

Although this means that today the regime has greater cohesion and unity of purpose than the diverse array of social and political forces opposed to it, the ruling system is also subject to many of the same centrifugal dynamics and pressures as the opposition is—and cannot rely indefinitely on the loyalty or determination of its subordinate levels. It has stepped relatively warily so far, which explains why it has not yet resorted to Hama-scale military tactics—except possibly in the northern border town of Jisr al-Shughur in a June 2011 clash—and why it has reportedly kept the bulk of the army in their barracks. 

As government authority diminishes, it is being replaced by a hodgepodge of armed groups, political factions, and semi-criminal opportunists. But unless the main opposition movements or umbrella organizations are able to pull most of these into some semblance of a functioning, united structure under their leadership—which is by no means assured—then the Syrian regime may well prove able to strike deals with emerging local strongmen or play rival factions against one another. It is already playing up the specter of thuggish violence and sectarian radicalization to deter large swathes of the urban middle classes from moving toward open dissent, despite their antipathy to the regime and deepening economic strains. 

The regime will almost certainly back this with periodic, if minimalist, “reform” initiatives or offers of severely circumscribed power sharing—possibly at the forthcoming Baath Party conference in February. And those moves will provide external allies such as Russia and Iraq with the slack they need to justify stonewalling tactics in the UN or Arab League. 

The external impasse 

One reason the Syrian regime has a further lease on life is that its regional and international opponents have severely limited options. 

The League of Arab States significantly upped the ante in late January, first by calling openly for a transfer of power in Syria and then by ending its observer mission. These were important steps that unequivocally underscored to regime supporters and waverers alike Syria’s deepening isolation. They effectively eroded the facade of normalcy and legitimacy the regime has striven to maintain and dispelled any illusions among its senior echelons and core constituencies that they can survive the crisis simply by toughing it out without entertaining a fundamental restructuring of power in Syria. Though among the Arab states, so far only Tunisia and the Libyan National Transitional Council have formally recognized the opposition government in exile, the Syrian National Council, widening the circle of recognition would drive the same message home.

Yet, the Arab League’s decisiveness obscures a dilemma. Implicit in its most recent decrees is the acknowledgment that it can do no more. Strikingly, it did not reimpose the economic boycott originally announced on November 27, 2011—and subsequently lifted when the Syrian regime signed the Arab action plan in December, promising to withdraw army units from the cities, release detainees, and allow peaceful protests—nor did it implement its previous threat to ban Arab civil aviation flights to and from Syria. This reflects the lack of consensus among league members, and the reality that none of the neighbors with which Syria has major trade or labor flows, which ensure continued receipt of hard currency remittances, has closed its border. 

Nor, with the possible exception of Turkey, will they: Iraq voted against the original economic boycott and looks set to act as Syria’s “extra lung” by providing it with an economic corridor to Iran and diesel oil imports. Lebanon abstained and is unable to apply a land blockade in any case because of its deep divisions within its own politics over Syria, while Jordan voted in favor but immediately requested an exemption from implementing the boycott due to its own economic circumstances. 

Hence the league’s turn toward the UN Security Council. But the hardening of Russian and Chinese attitudes against U.S. and Western policy toward Syria (and Iran) suggests that UN action will be blocked or watered down. All may eventually agree on tighter economic sanctions. But though Syria is already believed to have suffered a precipitous 30 percent drop in gross domestic product in 2011, other Arab experiences suggest that the regime can survive for some time yet. Iraq suffered a much worse drop after 1990, the Palestinian Authority suffered a 40 percent drop after the start of the second intifada, and Libya, whose economy depended mainly on the export of oil, survived one-and-a-half decades of sanctions. The porosity of Syria’s land borders, the diversity of its economy, and its relatively developed private sector with extensive business networks abroad suggest that the country, and not just the regime, can absorb a lot of pain. 

Nor will there be an external military intervention, even if Russia and China were to reverse their stances completely. Neither the United States nor the European Union will repeat the Libyan scenario, for various reasons: The operational and logistical challenges are not insurmountable in Syria but certainly exceed those faced in Libya. Outside military action may unite as many Syrians behind the regime as against it. Syria’s army can put up a much more robust defense than Libya’s underequipped and demoralized force. And last but by no means least, it is clear that although it is readying for the severe economic consequences of closing its border to trade with Syria, Turkey will not take over the burden of military intervention. That is why Ankara has sought to dispel speculation that it might establish protected border zones let alone the more demanding “humanitarian corridors” inside the country.

Although the Syrian regime is increasingly fragile, it needs more than a “light push” to fall. Internal security agencies are no doubt suffering erosion and loss of morale, but they remain largely loyal and cohesive. Though defections from the army continue, there is still no evidence of the trickle turning into a torrent; significantly, there have not yet been instances of entire brigades or even battalions breaking away, and especially not among armor, artillery, air defense, or strategic weapons units. An important indicator of the state of play in the army is that most defections still come from the lower ranks, suggesting that even those within the officer corps who feel strong antipathy toward the regime do not yet feel they can safely oppose it. 

The Free Syrian Army does not yet pose a strategic military threat, nor is it likely to in the absence of external military protection. This impedes the appearance of full-fledged “liberated zones,” even if parts of the countryside or some smaller cities slip out of government control. The regime has evidently preferred to relinquish some areas in order to avoid overstretching its military assets, and so its partial loss of control in some towns and neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus may be deceptive. Indeed, it has already reversed these losses, demonstrating its continuing ability to counterattack and retake territory. This may only be temporary, but the regime is focused on securing the restive cities of Homs and Hama in order to ensure territorial contiguousness and continuous control between Damascus, Aleppo, and the northern ports—an area in which some two-thirds of Syrians live—and along the main highways to its borders with Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan.

A hurting stalemate

Syria has entered a “hurting stalemate” that may last months rather than years, but certainly longer than mere weeks. External pressures and internal challenges have gone about as far as they can go for the foreseeable future. The regime is unable to suppress the revolt, but the opposition—both in exile and its main bulk inside the country—seems equally unable to broaden the scope of its actions, assert its clear political leadership, or demonstrate effective operational control over an increasingly messy situation on the ground. 

The transformation of the Syrian crisis into a geopolitical contest between the major regional and global powers—especially Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, the United States, and Russia—raises the stakes. By the same token, it blocks alternative paths for conflict resolution and increases the risks of sectarian violence. 

However, degeneration into sectarian conflict does not necessarily translate into all-out civil war, in part because the opposition remains unable to mass sufficient forces to take and hold territory or assets that the government really wants. More likely is one of two scenarios. 

Elements within the dominant Alawi community—possibly its “traditional,” religious leadership, or military commanders from outside the immediate circle of the Assad family and clan—may conclude that they can only lose in the event of a protracted military conflict or civil war. They could then press President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate favorable terms while he still can. 

But if this doesn’t happen—or is attempted but doesn’t succeed—then the regime will be gradually hollowed out until it reaches a tipping point and its power starts to crumble throughout the state apparatus, triggering a cascade of defections as the army, bureaucrats, and urban populations realize that the regime is no longer able to resist or counterattack. What, exactly, might trigger this denouement cannot be predicted, but it may not happen for some time yet.