First Published: 2012-07-31

 

Civil War in Syria: The Beginning of the End?

 

When the Assad regime eventually falls, with it will disappear the only glue that unites the myriad groups who are known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At this point, a struggle for power will ensue whereby alliances and counter-alliances amongst those factions will battle it out to ensure a piece of the Syrian pie, writes Galdini Franco.

 

Middle East Online

If one had saved a dollar bill for each time the Western media predicted the imminent fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad during the ongoing uprising against his regime, he or she could arguably be millionaires by now. Save some notable exceptions, the intricacy of Syria’s society and political economy have largely eluded mainstream analysis, which has tended to either reduce events in the country to a clear-cut battleground between the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – no need to explain which side is which – or to set it within the framework of the broader revolutionary momentum of the Arab Spring.

Whilst upheaval in North Africa has obviously contributed to the initial impetus of the Syrian uprising, the country’s recent history and social make-up have also informed the course of events, whilst in turn being influenced by regional and international players, in a constant feedback between the national, regional and international spheres.

Bloody Civil War

Far from representing a turning point in Syria’s 16-month-long uprising, the July 18 bombing of the National Security headquarters in the heart of Damascus signaled a steep acceleration towards a full-blown civil war. Instead of crumbling in a matter of days or weeks, as the media mantra went, the regime responded with striking coherence and enormous brutality, showing it still has a fight in it.

True, Assad’s credibility has been constantly eroding in a manner proportional to the amount of death and destruction the army and the security forces – whose officer corps is largely staffed with members of the President’s Alawite minority sect – are visiting daily upon Syrians in all parts of the country, with the collaboration of armed criminal gangs.

Yet, it is significant that most middle and upper class Sunnis, rather than rising against the dictator during the recent Free Syrian Army (FSA)’s operation Damascus Volcano, chose instead to cross the Syrian-Lebanese border and become refugees – at least temporarily. Likewise, the Syrian army, whose rank and file mostly hails from the majority Sunni population, has thus far maintained a high level of unity in spite of defections, as demonstrated by the recent operations in Damascus and – at the very time of writing – in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub and most populous city.

This goes to show that the stability-cum-patronage condominium Assad father worked so painstakingly to establish in his three decades in power is still holding together, though it is being weakened by the day. No regime could resist such onslaught for so long if most of the people, and crucially the army, would turn against it. This has simply not come to pass in Syria – as yet. ‘Many Syrians don't necessarily support the government but they fear the alternative,’ as Stephen Starr puts it. [1]

The reasons why steady erosion in trust of the regime’s capacity to ensure stability and social peace has not automatically translated into support for the opposition are manifold. Fear of the regime is certainly one. Yet, for its part, the opposition has failed spectacularly to rally Syria’s minorities to its cause and convince most urban Sunnis to jump ship. The former dread the conservative Sunni (and, at times, outright Jihadist) undertones of the FSA’s ideology, whereas the latter eye the possibility of a total break down in peace and order that would leave their livelihoods even more in tatters.

The slow transformation of the (mostly) peaceful uprising into an armed insurgency has only confirmed and heightened such fears. Moreover, whilst the domestic civilian opposition – notably the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) – is overwhelmed by the daunting task of providing entire communities under siege with a modicum of support to survive, the Syrian opposition abroad has failed to coalesce behind a unified programme despite pressures from their foreign patrons on both sides of the divide.

Non- or More Intervention?

Whether it is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressing the need not to interfere into Syria’s internal affairs, or US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging more muscular action against the regime, to cite just two (in)famous examples, all talk of non- or more intervention in Syria is ludicrous. For short of full military invasion, regional and international actors have been deeply embroiled in the ongoing Syrian tragedy from the very beginning.

Russia is the Assad regime’s main arms supplier. Although President Putin recently declared it will halt arms shipments to Syria ‘until the situation stabilizes,’ [2] Russia has been delivering stocks of weapons to its ally as recently as January 2012. The same be said for Iran, who has reportedly provided technical advice and equipment to forces loyal to the regime since the beginning of the uprising, whilst implementing development projects within the country valued at more than 1.7 billion USD. Sunnis in Iraq accuse the government of offering help to the Syrian regime, although it is unclear in what shape or form, whilst Russia and China repeatedly vetoed anti-Assad resolutions at the UN Security Council.

For their part, the US and their allies – conspicuously Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – have granted the insurgents safe havens from where to operate, along with intelligence, communication equipment and military gear in order to reduce the regime’s military advantage. Likewise, the US and their European allies, with France and the UK at the helm, have repeatedly tried to ram through several resolutions at the UN Security Council whilst failing to assuage Russian and Chinese’s fears of a repeat of Libya’s military foray.

Thus, international envoy Kofi Annan’s efforts to halt the violence as a prelude to negotiations were doomed from the outset, as such duplicitous postures by all sides –paying lip service to the need for dialogue whilst practically eliminating any space for it – effectively helped to harden both the regime’s and the opposition’s stances vis-à-vis any compromise solution to the crisis.

In conclusion, whilst the regime bears most of the responsibility for the actual state of affairs, both for brutalising the Syrian people for decades and for choosing to respond with outrageous violence to their legitimate demands, all foreign sponsors on both sides of the divide deserve their share of the blame for the escalating civil war ravaging Syria at present. As for the (initially mostly peaceful) opposition, failing to create an alternative discourse in words and deeds to the regime’s sectarian trump card proved to be their undoing. Their voices are now drowning in the crossfire.

Only the Beginning

Paradoxically, when the Assad regime eventually falls, with it will disappear the only glue that unites the myriad groups who are known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At this point, a struggle for power will ensue whereby alliances and counter-alliances amongst those factions will battle it out to ensure a piece of the Syrian pie, whilst trying to enforce their vision of how the ‘new Syria’ should look like.

Similarly to Iraq, Syria’s many minority communities, along with the staff dismissed from collapsing state institutions and security forces – often one and the same group – will feel alienated in their own country, thus laying the ground for a future counterinsurgency. For no-one is this more true than for the Alawis, whose (wrong) wholesale association with the Assad dynasty in the eyes of the populace at large, itself partly the result of the regime’s own policies and propaganda, will expose them to ruthless acts of retaliation.

As Joshua Landis recently wrote, ‘Washington is pursuing regime change by civil war in Syria.’ [3] For despite all the talk of military intervention, the US administration is enjoying the best of both worlds, namely avoiding getting bogged down in another military adventure, which would practically mean taking sides in a civil war, whilst publicly laying the blame at China’s and Russia’s door.

Yet, as Mark LeVine pointed out in a series of superb articles on sponsored chaos in Iraq: ‘be careful what you wish for.’ [4] For civil war in Syria holds the potential to spread to several neighbouring countries, as witnessedfor instance in the Northern Lebanese city ofTripoli, where violent clashes eruptedbetween pro- and anti-regime campsalong the same sectarian lines as inSyria.Worse still, the heightening of sectarian tensions in the region in the wake of the US invasion ofIraq,and the ensuing 2006-7 Sunni-Shia civil war in the country, makes this possibility very real.

As a life-time opponent to the Assad regime – with almost two decades in Assad’s dungeons in his pedigree – pointedly told me a couple of days ago: ‘In the end, all those factions will fight each other to exhaustion. It will take a long time and a lot of bloodletting. But they’ll finally come back to the negotiating table, because the solution to Syria’s crisis can only be political.’

So don’t hold your breath. The Assad regime’s fall will be a messy and gruesome affair. Alas, this is not the beginning of the end of the Syrian people’s suffering: it is only the beginning – of a long and bloody civil war.

Galdini Franco is a freelance analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He lived for 10 years in the Middle East and North Africa, where he worked in various capacities with the International Committe of the Red Cross (ICRC), Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

 

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