After seven months, the uprising in Syria shows no sign of abating. An estimated 3,000 people have been killed in a brutal crackdown on civilian protesters. Fears are growing of a full-blown civil war between the army and Sunni defectors, amid reports of increasing sectarian tensions. On 29 October, more than 40 people were reported to have been killed in the city of Homs, and President Bashar al-Assad warned against foreign intervention.
Syria’s precarious sectarian balance makes it prone to the threat of civil war. A minority Alawite elite rules over a majority Sunni Muslim population and sizable minorities of Christians and Kurds. The regime has maintained a 40-year grip on power through heavy use of divide-and-rule tactics, while favouring the Alawite minority for high-level military and political positions.
Protesters who took to the streets in mid-March in a quest for greater political freedoms have been openly calling for regime change and even Assad’s execution. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of mainly low-level Sunni soldiers have defected from the Alawite-led army. Activists have accused the government of deliberately stirring sectarian tensions in recent months, to try to deflect anger against it. But weekly Friday demonstrations and smaller daily protests continue across much of Syria. ‘Gadhafi is gone; your turn is coming Bashar,’ is among the latest chants from the streets.
‘Beginning of armed rebellion’
Reports of small-scale army defections began surfacing in June, as soldiers refused ordersto shoot unarmed demonstrators. As with most reports coming out of Syria, a general ban on foreign journalists meant these reports were unverified, and when several senior defectors declared a Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the end of July, there were doubts about its significance. Now, however, defections are accelerating and the FSA is being seen as a growing challenge to Assad.
The group is led by officers, including General Riadh Asaad, who is based across Syria’s northern border in Turkey. He has said that the FSA’s aim is to establish control over northern Syria and use the area as a launch pad for attacks against the regime, in much the same way as Libyan rebels used the region around Benghazi. Having done this, the FSA planned to call for a no-fly zone over the area, and launch an onslaught against the regime. ‘It is the beginning of armed rebellion,’ Gen. Asaad told the Washington Post in September. ‘You cannot remove this regime except by force and bloodshed.’
The exact size of the FSA and the wider support for its proposed initiatives are still unknown. Gen. Asaad claims that 10,000 soldiers have defected, but some commentators put the FSA’s strength in the hundreds. Before he left Syria in fear of his life, the outspoken US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said he did not think the numbers were ‘big enough to have an impact one way or another on the contest between the protesters and the government’. He stressed that ‘the vast majority of protests are still unarmed’.
Nevertheless, in October the FSA engaged in a four-day clash against government troops in Rastan, a town of 40,000 near Homs and home to the best-known of the FSA’s units, theKhaled bin al-Walid Brigade. Syrian army tanks backed by helicopters pounded the city, and seven soldiers and police officers were reported to have been killed. This was the most coordinated and sustained period of fighting launched by the opposition so far. On 18 October, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that gunmen in the northwestern province of Idlib blew up an army vehicle, killing an officer and three soldiers. Earlier, five soldiers were also killed in clashes with gunmen in Homs.
Since April, weapons have reportedly been smuggled into Syria, and this illicit trade is now flourishing, albeit apparently more as a means of individual self-defence than a concerted effort by foreign powers, as the Syrian government has often claimed.
Indeed, conscious that the Assad government has sought to excuse its brutal actions against protesters by claiming that it has been facing armed ‘terrorists’ since March, many opposition activists are nervous about the FSA’s proposals. They fear these will only lead to further violence from the state security forces and government-backed militia, the shabiha.
Recent reports suggest this has been happening already. Daily campaigns against protesters continue to cause deaths across Syria, worshippers leaving Friday prayers are shot at, regime opponents have been regularly kidnapped and prominent political leaders have been assassinated in their homes. Hospitals, patients and medics have reportedly been targeted. Human-rights group Amnesty International has documented cases of security forces impeding ambulances carried injured protesters or entering hospitals to beat doctors and shoot patients. Medics loyal to the regime are said to have denied patients treatment.
Syria has a complicated web of political allegiances. Poorer Alawites (a heterodox Shia sect) have often been neglected by the ruling Alawite elite. Although individual Alawites have joined the protests, the regime has convinced most to support it with state-media predictions of a radical and hostile Islamist takeover should the country’s majority Sunni population gain power. Other minorities such as Christians and Druze have largely sided with the regime, or stayed on the fence, for the same reason.
Divisions also exist on class lines. Syria’s business community, whose interests are deeply rooted in privileges bestowed by the ruling class, remains dependent on the regime for survival in times of deepening economic hardship.
The Syrian opposition recently tried to unite myriad opposition groups inside and outside the country into a revived Syrian National Council (SNC), first founded in 2005. The broadest umbrella of dissident groups yet, it includes nationalists, secularists and Islamists (including the Muslim Brotherhood) and aims to emulate Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC).
The opposition has faced criticism for its failure so far to bring together different strands of dissent, and it is not yet clear whether the SNC can achieve this. It still faces competition from the main opposition bloc within the country, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), which has adopted a very different stance. Whereas the SNC has said it accepts the possibility of a military intervention by regional neighbours, the NCCDC has refused to countenance that option and has focused its efforts on dialogue and political reform.
With the opposition continuing to suffer internal divisions, there is anecdotal evidence of growing sectarian strains in the wider Syrian community. After seven weeks in the country, a special correspondent for Al-Jazeera reported that ‘sectarian hatred’ was growing on both sides, and hints of the same were given in a recent BBC current affairs programme. Comments by an International Crisis Group expert studying arms trafficking from Lebanon to Syria also suggest a degree of inter-community mistrust: ‘Residents in Alawite villages are arming themselves for fear of reprisals, and the (mainly Sunni Muslim) opposition is increasingly doing the same, given the regime’s harsh crackdown against any form of protest.’
The success of the Libyan uprising, helped by NATO air strikes, has clearly boosted the Syrian opposition, which failed to gain control of territory or establish clear leadership in six months of peaceful protest. But the situations of the two countries are very different.
Any no-fly zone over northern Syria, for example, would have to extend quite far south for cities at the heart of the resistance, such as Homs, Rastan and Hama, to be included. At 22.5 million, Syria’s population is more than three times that of Libya’s 6.6m, and its armed forces – including reservists – are five times larger than those of Muammar Gadhafi’. The fact that many Syrians live in or near mountains would make the country more difficult to patrol from the air than the sparsely populated coastal plain between Benghazi and Tripoli. Civilian casualties would be more difficult to avoid in any air strikes.
In any case, military intervention in Syria remains far from the international agenda. The French and Turkish foreign ministers have publicly met SNC delegates, but are yet to formally recognise the group. Foreign capitals must take into account the fact that many Syrians still support the regime – and that the close relationship between the Syrian government, the Iranian regime and Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement raises the potential of wider conflict. World leaders have, however, hardened their rhetoric against President Assad, moving from urging him to stop the bloodshed and implement reforms to calling for him to step down
The most significant actions so far taken have been unilateral sanctions. Washington has frozen Syrian assets in the United States, banned Syrian oil companies and placed sanctions on Assad and his family, among other actions. The EU has imposed similar measures, including sanctions on banks and a ban on European imports of Syrian crude oil, which account for one-third of Damascus’s hard-currency earnings. Turkey, until recently a close ally, has been alarmed by a huge influx of Syrian refugees and is increasingly criticalof the Assad regime’s violence against opponents. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has provided a base for the launch of several opposition coalitions, including the SNC, and is preparing its own sanctions against Damascus. In October, Turkey announced it would conduct a week-long series of military exercises along the Syrian border.
The impact of such measures, however, has been blunted by a Chinese and Russian veto of a draft UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters and approving ‘targeted’ multilateral measures against the regime. China said it was uneasy about interfering in Syria’s internal affairs. It did not wish to see a repeat of the Libyan situation in which many considered the air strikes went beyond the original UN mandate of protecting civilians and were used to effect regime change.
At an impasse
In recent weeks, there have been further calls to refer Assad and other leaders to the International Criminal Court for human-rights abuses – an option discussed for some time.The Arab League has been playing a mediation role, setting a 31 October deadline for a Syrian government ceasefire against protesters and the start of a national dialogue. However, it has not expelled Syria, as it did Libya.
International politicians from US President Barack Obama to French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe have said that Assad has lost his legitimacy and that his days are numbered. ‘Sooner or later’, Turkey’s Erdogan has warned, the Syrian president would be toppled by his own people. However, with small brigades of army defectors and peaceful protesters facing an entrenched and brutal security apparatus – with the only outside assistance coming in the form of condemnation and sanctions – the regime could yet survive for some time. It still enjoys support among the middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, which the economic impact of sanctions could take a long time to shift.
Reports suggested that the Assad regime initially reacted to Gadhafi’s death by stepping upits brutal repression of protests. So the country could be in for a period of increasing violence. While the opposition may feel that too much blood has been shed for it to back down, its activists have failed so far to gather the momentum or cross-class consensus that would be required to challenge the government’s unity. The prospects of Syria emerging from conflict appear bleak.