Prospects for Syria look bleak with conflict continuing to intensify in Damascus, Aleppo, and other parts of the country. The resignation of Kofi Annan as UN special envoy and interlocutor with the Assad regime highlights the difficulty of effective international engagement, while the even more recent defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab underlines the narrowing political options for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

In this Q&A, Yezid Sayigh explains how the regime’s probable victory in Aleppo will likely expand so-called clearing operations in the surrounding area to build on the government’s perceived success. Sayigh argues that despite the problems facing diplomacy, the international community should maintain pressure on Russia to help engineer a viable formula for sharing power as part of Syria’s transition away from Assad.

Is Syria now in a state of civil war?

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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Several authoritative bodies say it is. On July 15, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which oversees the Geneva Conventions, announced that it now considered Syria to be in a state of “non-international armed conflict.” Previously it had regarded the cities and surroundings of Idlib, Homs, and Hama as “war zones,” but the fighting had now become so widespread as to constitute a civil war.

For Hervé Ladsous, UN under secretary general for peacekeeping operations, Syria has already been in a state of civil war for over a month, as “the government of Syria [had] lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control.”

The ICRC’s declaration reflects its legal prerogative of making combatants on both sides subject to the Geneva Conventions, and liable to prosecution for war crimes. From a politico-military point of view, however, Syria is experiencing a hybrid civil war, popular insurrection, and asymmetric conflict. Whichever way we describe the conflict, it is important not to be misled by one label or another into underestimating both the regime’s capacity for even greater violence and the ways in which its opponents must prepare for what is to come.

How much control does the Assad regime still have?

With the defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab, the Assad regime’s claim to retain political legitimacy has been very badly dented. This could lead to the much-anticipated “tipping point” at which significant sectors of the civilian population, government officials and civil servants, and armed forces finally defect openly. But until then only the regime has the capacity to mobilize a full military effort by utilizing the parts of the population, government agencies, and economic resources that are under its control.

The rebels it confronts are still waging a largely mobile campaign; they claim to control most of the country by night, but most of the Syrian population lives within zones held or contested by the regime, and so the rebels remain highly vulnerable to counterattack and unable to mobilize resources or organize daily life on the same scale.

The regime is still largely uncontested in several parts of the country, including the northern coastal region and Sweida province in the south. It also retains the upper hand in Damascus and in much of the east and northeast. In these regions, government forces have for the moment reasserted control (as in Deir ez-Zor) or else deliberately ceded control of Kurdish-populated cities and towns (including Qamishli to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) without a shot being fired). Although the PYD is the largest Kurdish opposition force, it is not taking the fight to the Assad regime and has allowed loyalist forces in its region to remain in their barracks.

Conversely, the disparate rebel groups operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army remain unable to exercise continuous effective control over the areas they hold. There are a few exceptions, such as al-Rastan, which for months has resisted all government attacks. But elsewhere the regime has proven itself able to wrest back cities and towns it is determined to control, as the recent battle for Damascus demonstrated. The rebels who briefly held neighborhoods such as al-Midan had in fact taken refuge there after an army offensive pushed them out of their urban strongholds in the surrounding countryside.

If the Aleppo battle results in a regime victory, which is the most likely outcome, the government will try to capitalize on it with clearing operations in the surrounding towns and countryside and toward the Turkish border, where it is already trying to regain control. Heavy rebel losses in Aleppo may weaken their ability to resist.

The picture will shift, however. The regime is no longer able to secure complete quiet in any area it has retaken. Homs is an obvious example, as it has witnessed daily firefights and bouts of intense shelling since government forces retook Baba Amr in early February. Sporadic clashes also continue inside Hama, and in Damascus and the poverty belt around it. But for now the regime still possesses very considerable means to raise the threshold of violence, while denying the opposition the means to build a similar capability.

There may come a point when the regime is so overstretched in its attempt to quell opposition and maintain control of all main population centers that its military and security apparatus starts to break down. But its ability to mass an estimated 20,000 troops for the battle of Aleppo suggests it has not yet reached that point. Once the regime’s military assets are sufficiently degraded, this correlation of forces is more likely to give way to a power-sharing deal and regime transition than to a protracted, full-fledged civil war.

How significant was the July 18 bomb attack on senior Syrian security officials?

There has been a lot of speculation over who carried out the attack. Seasoned analysts believe that Syrian rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army lack the operational sophistication, and that a foreign intelligence agency was the key actor.

But regardless of who planned and actually carried out the assassination, it demonstrated that the regime has been penetrated and its inner circle is at risk. The fact that the same group of officials in the “crisis management cell” had previously been targeted by an attempted poisoning attack suggests that the regime was complacent. The brutal wake-up call explains the swift and vehement military response to the challenge by armed rebels in several Damascus neighborhoods, and the reports of summary executions of suspected dissidents.

The most important effect of the assassinations is that they made the regime look vulnerable.

This reinforced the impact of the defection of Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas, a brigade commander in the Republican Guard, Assad confidant, and the son of Syria’s former long-serving defense minister, Mustafa Tlas. Further defections followed, including senior diplomats, army officers, and at least one security official accused of human rights abuses. The defection of Prime Minister Hijab is the most significant to date, more so than that of Tlas, who is opposed by the Free Syrian Army and large parts of the opposition inside Syria. Together, these defections signal declining confidence in the ability of the regime’s military strategy to ensure its own survival.

Is this the endgame for the Assad regime?

The regime cannot “win,” nor can it survive indefinitely. But what this really means is that Bashar al-Assad cannot remain in the presidency. Other individuals in the regime including some of his “technocratic” ministers—or groups such as key Alawite officers—may become part of a power-sharing formula.

Several schemes are currently under discussion in Russia, Turkey, and even Egypt, with at least tacit endorsement from the United States and some Arab League members. But conditions on the ground are not yet ripe for any of these efforts to succeed.

It is more likely that periods of intense violence will alternate with lulls in hostilities, during which time new diplomatic feelers will be put out and proposals for a negotiated transition revised.

President Assad appears unwilling to entertain any meaningful compromise, and still wields sufficient resources and authority to fight on. Besides, the regime retains military and organizational superiority, and can probably survive in its present form until the end of 2012. Indeed, well-connected Syrian observers report that regime insiders believe it will not face a more serious threat until approximately March 2013, by which time it estimates that the incoming U.S. administration will be in a position to undertake military action against it.

In this sense, the regime has not yet reached its endgame.

Will the escalating violence break the political and military deadlock?

Not yet. July witnessed a series of dramatic events: the bombing of the regime’s “crisis management cell,” the so-called Damascus volcano launched by armed rebels, and the rebel offensive in Aleppo. These were important developments that served to underscore the failure of the regime’s “security solution.”

But they also generated overly optimistic predictions that the regime’s fall is imminent—a matter of weeks—and unrealistic assessments of the military balance. It took relatively few lightly armed rebels to give off the impression, for about a week, that the regime had lost control of large chunks of its own capital. Rebel commanders in the north quickly capitalized on this and sent their units into Aleppo, posing a far more serious challenge to the regime.

This, however, may prove to be a costly mistake. The rebels caught their enemy off balance, but instead of withdrawing to conserve their strength and gradually wear down superior government forces through repeated maneuvers, they committed wholly to the battle. Insiders say that local Free Syrian Army commanders who preferred caution found their hand forced by the militant Islamist “Tawhid Brigade,” which insisted on immediate confrontation. If the rebels lose, the casualties they sustain will be far more significant than those they suffered in Damascus or its countryside.

The picture may be radically transformed if significant numbers of troops now encircling the city defect en masse, triggering a wider breakdown within the army. But otherwise a military setback in Aleppo could threaten rebel strongholds in a swathe of territory around the city and will be a political and psychological blow that will take time to overcome. This could hinder behind-the-scenes efforts to negotiate a peaceful exit for Bashar al-Assad or possible power-sharing formulas.

How will the crisis affect Syria’s neighbors?

The Syrian regime is clearly trying to influence the behavior of some of its neighbors by signaling its ability to raise costs for them if they don’t change course.

Official reassurances that Syria will use its chemical weapons “only to defend against external aggression” is in fact an attempt to provoke Israeli fears that the Syrian arsenal may fall into dangerous hands. This would in turn prompt Israel to dissuade the United States from pursuing regime change.

Similarly, the Assad regime has allowed the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian affiliate of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to take de facto control of areas bordering Turkey.

Turkey has threatened to attack these Kurdish bases in Syria, but it is not keen on becoming directly embroiled in the ongoing conflict. It fears that an autonomous Kurdish region is taking shape in northern Syria. This worry has no doubt deepened following the establishment of a Supreme Kurdish Council between the PKK-supported People’s Council of West Kurdistan—of which the Democratic Union Party is also a member—and the Kurdish National Council in Syria.

The fact that this unity deal was brokered by the head of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, Masoud Barzani, indicates the emergence of a complex geo-strategic competition between the Syrian regime, various Syrian Kurdish parties, Iraqi Kurds, and the government in Baghdad.

Pressure is also building up on other neighbors. The rival pro- and anti-Assad camps in Lebanon have so far prevented tensions from spilling over into widespread civil strife. However, Syrian cross-border fire is clearly intended to force the Lebanese authorities to curb the flow of rebel fighters and arms into the country. The Lebanese government has announced that it will deploy 2,000 troops to control the border region, but this may exacerbate tensions between the army and local communities that support the Syrian opposition.

Strains are also appearing along Syria’s border with Iraq, where efforts by local tribal leaders to remain neutral are being eroded as tribal youths join the Free Syrian Army and jihadists arriving from Iraq set up staging areas. Tensions are increasing between Sunni Arab tribes from Iraq’s western provinces and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which continues to support the Assad regime. But none of the main Iraqi actors—including the Kurdistan Regional Government—seem ready to bring down the uneasy balance between these domestic rivals.

Jordan is under less of a threat than either Iraq or Lebanon, but it bears the burden of 142,000 Syrian refugees and is bracing itself for more to arrive. And Amman is increasingly worried that Syrian agents have infiltrated the kingdom in order to disrupt security and influence Jordanian policy toward the regime in Damascus.

What should the international community do now? Are Russia and China standing in the way?

The international community has limited means to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis, so long as it is unwilling to intervene militarily. Then again, intervention could actually trigger worse or uncontainable violence, such as large-scale revenge killings or “cleansing,” unless sufficient levels of foreign troops are deployed (which is even less likely).

The Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council ironically obscure the fact that none of the external actors with the capability to influence the outcome—the United States, European Union, and Turkey, whether acting collectively under NATO or individually—is ready to intervene.

China only really poses a diplomatic obstacle to international intervention, as it is not a major source of military, economic, or financial assistance to Syria. But Russia is far more important given its longstanding ties to the Syrian army, its role in easing the regime’s financial crisis, and its open military commitment to Syrian defense. This is why the “Friends of Syria” are dependent on persuading Russia to deliver a controlled transition that they themselves are unable to ensure. However, Russian influence and leverage are evidently insufficient to shift Assad’s policy when it comes to his own survival.

Meanwhile, the “Friends” remain unwilling to involve Iran in resolving the crisis, even though it is the one external actor that could wield decisive leverage. Absent an Iranian role, repeated resort by the “Friends of Syria” to the Security Council will not end the violence in Syria. Still, this maintains pressure on Russia and incentivizes Moscow to help engineer a viable formula for sharing power; Russia seeks to preserve as much as it can of its existing political and military relationship with Syria, and so it may finally abandon Assad openly if it feels this is the only way of salvaging part of its stake.