The Crisis in Syria
February 8, 2012
Q1: How has President Bashar al-Assad of Syria been able to remain in power in the wake of mounting unrest?
A1: A number of local and regional factors have and are likely to continue to enable Assad to hang on to power, at least in the short to medium term.
First, Assad continues to rely on the support of key communal and interest groups that will at best face challenges in a post-Assad Syria and at worst risk marginalization and deepening insecurity. The majority of the Alawite sect (the community to which Assad belongs and which is a bulwark of the regime’s leadership structure and security apparatus) continues to support Assad. Many Alawites feel that Assad has mismanaged the instability, yet they cannot avoid the reality that in a Sunni-dominated Syria, their community—like the Sunnis of Iraq and the Maronite Christians of Lebanon before them—is likely to be pushed to the margins of power and suffer reprisals.
Assad also enjoys the backing of Syria’s Christian community, which fears the sort of instability and sectarian recrimination seen in Iraq, where the majority of Christians were forced to flee the country. Other communal groups, such as the Ismailis and the Kurds, have either continued their support or have held back from joining elements of the protest movement for similar reasons.
While many Sunnis have sided with the opposition, there are others within the Ba’ath Party’s rank and file that have few prospects in a post-Assad Syria. The security forces and the army are cases in point. Finally, Syria’s merchant class and business community, located mainly in Aleppo and Damascus, have also remained largely on the sidelines of the protests. Though some have supported elements of the opposition, most remain fearful of the socioeconomic vacuum that an abrupt change in leadership is likely to create.
Taken together, most if not all of these groups are unhappy with how the Assad regime has managed Syria’s nearly year-long unrest. Despite these reservations, however, these groups prefer that Assad remain in power rather than bet on opposition forces that remain largely leaderless, divided, and appear to be increasingly radicalized.
Second, Assad has benefited from the fact that, unlike most of the other countries in the region that have undergone major unrest, the protests in Syria started in the country’s poorer rural periphery, not in its wealthier urban centers such as Damascus or Aleppo. The current unrest is largely a result of the rolling back of long-term subsidization, deepening economic cleavages, growing disparities in wealth, and rampant corruption and bad governance on the part of the country’s ruling elite. While this frames the challenge any Syrian leader must face to enact true reforms, it also presents the Assad regime with a lifeline. Despite unrest in key cities such as Homs and Hama, which have a legacy of unrest from the 1980s, there is yet to be an equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in Damascus or Aleppo, and it is only in 2012 that these cities are starting to feel the pressure of unrest.
Third, the local opposition forces remain deeply divided and have yet to show true unity of purpose, command and control, or a socioeconomic platform that the average Syrian can look to as a viable and stable alternative to the ruling Assad regime. This has become all the more challenging as the opposition has moved to arm itself in a bid to fight back against the crackdown by the security apparatus. With the militarization of the protest movements, peaceful demonstrations and traditional elements of Syria’s depleted civil society have grown increasingly marginalized. Many Syrians remain fearful of a Libya-style descent into militia warfare and lawlessness and are wary of the costs of uncertain transitions in Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen.
Outside of Syria, the opposition faces yet another challenge: the Syrian National Council (SNC) in particular has had to work hard to reverse perceptions that the group has been parachuted into its role as an opposition force. The SNC’s legitimacy has been, and continues to be, questioned by opposition forces within Syria proper, and there are key areas where Syria’s external and internal opposition do not speak in unison. These include questions about military intervention and whether or not to call for the immediate ouster of Assad. Syria’s main internal opposition forces, led by the National Coordination Committee (NCC), have been far more reluctant to support direct intervention despite a brutal crackdown, and they continue to entertain the prospect of a negotiated settlement of the crisis.
At the regional level, the Assad regime benefits from divisions and uncertainty about the way forward on Syria. In the first half of 2011, most states in the Arab League feared spillover effects from instability and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. The richer and more stable oil monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) moved quickly to insulate themselves from the effects of regional unrest. This has included greater investment in job creation, more subsidization, and more energy focused on addressing some of their lingering socioeconomic grievances. In the latter half of 2011, the GCC states—led from the front by Qatar and, more critically, from the rear by Saudi Arabia—have grown increasingly critical of Syria as the cycle of violence went on unabated.
At the rhetorical level, the Gulf states (with a majority Sunni population) have grown increasingly critical of Assad’s crackdown on his mainly Sunni political opponents. This comes at a time of growing negative public opinion toward Shi’a Iran. At the geopolitical level, Iran underestimated just how concerned the Gulf states are about the implications of unchecked Iranian hegemonic aspirations in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Growing pressure on Syria from the Arab League, led by the GCC, is meant in part to influence the regional balance against Iran by seizing a rare opportunity to shape internal and security politics in Syria—Iran’s sole major Arab ally.
Other members of the Arab League, however, have been far more reticent about the prospects of continued and open-ended pressure on Syria. For a variety of reasons, countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan have been more reluctant to support the Gulf states’ efforts on Syria. For example, Iraq and Lebanon worry about the risks of internal instability in neighboring states; others, such as Algeria and Sudan, fear setting further regional precedents for regime change and international intervention in inter-Arab affairs. Countries like Egypt are also concerned about being relegated to minor or supporting roles in inter-Arab politics.
Q2: How strong is the Free Syrian Army, and what are the prospects for an armed insurgency in Syria?
A2: The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has managed to score some operational and tactical victories in the north in Idlib province, as well as in the provinces of Hama and Homs and some suburbs of Damascus. Despite these successes, without better organization, leadership, command and control, and more military personnel and hardware, there is little chance that the FSA can compete with the regime’s security apparatus.
The FSA’s manpower remains limited to the low thousands, and there are few indications that the force has been able to establish a clear chain of command. Elements of the armed opposition seem to be operating outside the umbrella of the FSA, and cities like Homs and Hama have seen the emergence of home-grown armed groups or militias intent on defending their neighborhoods against the crackdown. Meanwhile, despite unverified claims of external support, there is little indication that the FSA has increased its capabilities from a qualitative standpoint.
The opposition and the international community also seem to have fundamentally misjudged the resilience of the Syrian military. While there have been defections, and morale has been negatively affected, there seem to have been more outright desertions than shifts of forces to the FSA. The leadership of the Syrian military continues to support the regime for reasons that include a deep aversion to prolonged instability and the prospect of reprisals should Assad lose power. The FSA has made some gains, but the Syrian military continues to control many key checkpoints leading to rebel-held neighborhoods and districts. While the Syrian military needed time to absorb the shock of mounting internal opposition, it now appears to be on the offensive, and it is likely to remain critical to the survival of the Assad regime. Should it experience real divisions in the future, the FSA may be able to take advantage, but nothing is guaranteed.
Q3: What can the international community do to put pressure on Syria?
A3: The latest Russo-Chinese double veto at the UN Security Council, which prevented broader condemnation of the Assad regime, is an indication of division at the international level about how best to apply pressure on Syria. Despite the failure at the United Nations, how the international community manages Syrian unrest will remain critical to the future stability of the Levant and the broader region.
States such as Qatar and Turkey have hinted at the possibility of using force to halt the crackdown. However, no military effort against Syria is likely to succeed without the capabilities, logistical support, and command and control of the U.S. military. There is little to no appetite beyond rhetoric for direct military intervention. Syria is too close to the epicenter of ethnic divisions in the region, as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict, and any external intervention is likely to be deeply destabilizing at a regional level.
But should the Syrian military experience major divisions, the risk of intervention would increase.
A negotiated solution to the crisis remains a viable outcome. The United States and the European Union have supported stronger diplomatic measures meant to dislodge the Assad regime, based on the Gulf-led Arab League initiative. Though Russia and China have bandwagoned against the West and continue to support the Assad regime and its ally Iran, they too favor a negotiated outcome, if on laxer terms. Russia and China seem to favor a power-sharing structure between the regime and opposition forces within Syria, including the NCC. Russia in particular feels confident that it can extract key concessions and a long-term transition from the Assad regime. Failure to do so would undermine Russia’s increasingly prominent role in ending the Syrian crisis.
At best, the Assad regime would be replaced by a democratic Sunni-dominated leadership that is more favorable to the foreign policies of the United States and the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia. This could include a degradation of ties to Iran with effects on the flow of Iranian weapons and support to Hezbollah. At worst, Syria would remain unstable and could deteriorate into a deeper sectarian civil war, a conflict that could in turn draw its neighbors—especially Saudi Arabia and Iran—into a cycle of regional proxy warfare. What is certain, however, is that in any scenario, Syria’s regional role has been severely weakened by a year of unrest. The country will need a long time to stabilize its fragile economy and uncertain political future.
Aram Nerguizian is a visiting fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.