Syria’s tragic descent from autocracy into civil war

George Joffé

Anti-government graffiti scrawled by youngsters in the town of Dera’a in March 2011 set off what threatens to become Syria’s civil war. Between 12,000 and 14,000 civilians have died, together with 4,000 to 6,000 combatants on both sides. A further 55,000 are refugees in Turkey, over 200,000 are thought to be incarcerated by the Syrian government, and around 65,000 people have gone missing. None of these figures are precise, of course, given the circumstances, but they do indicate the enormity of the tragedy that has befallen the country as the majority of the population struggles against a government that is apparently deter­mined not to yield any of its power. Now the crisis looks almost certain to become a bloody civil war as surrounding powers supply arms to both sides.

(Photo credited to UN Photo/David Manyua)

The basic issue is simple enough: after many years of unyield­ing autocratic rule, Syrians started crying out, in their majority, for the introduction of a more participatory political system. For many months they have demanded this through peaceful mass demon­strations, to which the authorities have responded with repressive violence. Now, after more than a year of demonstrations, armed dissidence has broken out and peaceful protest has been replaced by violent confrontation in many parts the country. Major flash­points have been the cities of Dera’a, Homs and Hama, and several massacres have occurred in towns and villages across the northern provinces of Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo.

The real problem lies in Syria’s social and ethnic heterogeneity and in its tumultuous history, complicated by the political role it has played in the Levant and its location within the alliance struc­tures of the Middle East, as a key ally of Iran.

The Syrian population has always been a complex mixture of re­ligious and ethnic groups. Although the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim by belief, there have been significant Christian, Alawite and Druze minorities. The Alawite and Druze believe in heterodox variants of Shia Islam, involving additions from other faiths as well, although Alawite beliefs were recognised by Iranian religious leaders some time ago as being part of the Shia commu­nity. Ethnically, the vast majority of Syrians are Arab, but there is also a significant, marginalised Kurdish minority in the north-east.

Ethnic and social tensions have, in the past, been a chronic source of unrest. More importantly, they have also informed the political make-up of the country. Thus Alawite and Druze have played a significant part in the many regimes that have ruled Syria since it gained independence in 1946, while the Christians have looked towards each dominant group for protection against the threat they see from the Sunni majority. Since 1971, the Ba’athist regime has been controlled by a single minority, the Alawite, based around the port city of Latakia, under the leadership of the Assad family. In essence, therefore, an explicitly Arab nationalist regime has been dominated by a sectarian minority, whose members are popularly perceived to be the primary beneficiaries of the state.

The autocracy that sits at the top of Syria’s power politics was challenged once before in the early 1980s, when Sunni grievances were harnessed by the Muslim Brotherhood and erupted in a cam­paign of violence against the Alawite elite. The savage government response culminated in the destruction of the city of Hama, where at least 10,000 people died. The resulting political hegemony en­joyed by the regime has only declined into further repression and corruption, exacerbating the frustrations of the majority.

Following the example of the Arab Spring, disaffection fostered waves of angry but peaceful demonstrations last year, to which the regime responded with brutality. This soon descended into lawlessness as the Assad government increasingly made use of a militia force, the Shabiha militia, recruited from Alawite criminal gangs that have flour­ished since the 1980s. The Shabiha (Arabic for ‘ghosts’, and thought to be named after the model of Mercedes they used to prefer) have been formed into a paramilitary force, believed to be financed by Syr­ian businessmen. These militiamen murder and massacre alongside the elite units of the Syrian army, commanded by the new strongman of the regime, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher.

The crisis has been prolonged by a series of other factors, in­cluding the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition into at least 17 groups, which cannot agree among themselves. Some of those based inside Syria itself still seek a negotiated solution to which, in theory, the government is also committed. Others, inside and outside the country, reject such a solution and look increasingly to an armed struggle spearheaded by the Free Syrian Army – made up of desert­ers and dissidents from the army and said to number 30,000, but poorly armed and severely threatened by government repression.

In addition, the regime is probably not as united as it might appear. Bashar al-Assad has never enjoyed the supremacy of power that his father did, but has had to appease the irredentist Ba’ath leadership that he inherited and that, early on, rejected his attempts at a brief liberalisation, incarnated in the ‘Damascus Spring’. This potential weakness has made the Syrian government unrelenting in its repres­sion, despite its promises of change through a new constitution (sup­posedly approved by referendum) and recent parliamentary elections – carried out in what appear to be civil war conditions.

In spite of the horrific experiences witnessed in some parts of the country, other regions do appear to be at peace and under firm govern­ment control. The government still enjoys the support of the Christians and the Druze, fearful as they are of Sunni revenge. Enduring the dam­aging effects of sanctions and the domestic crisis, even the economic elite has not yet withdrawn its support. And the Syrian army, despite mass desertions, still appears to be intact as it now prepares to face yet another threat, that of extremist violence, as religious radicals from Iraq and elsewhere infiltrate across Syria’s borders, to introduce the kind of violence seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is huge uncertainty about Syria’s future relations with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, because two of them, Russia and China, have blocked any attempt to authorise in­tervention – in part to express their displeasure over Libya last year, when a responsibility to protect civilians became a mission to bring about regime change. Russia, in particular, insists that a negotiated solution is the only way forward, despite the failure of Kofi Annan’s six-point UN plan designed to achieve precisely this outcome.

Europe and the USA both demand an end to the regime but neither is prepared to act decisively to achieve it, despite grow­ing popular pressure. Europe simply doesn’t have the means for intervention, given its own financial and economic crisis, while the USA lacks the will for further military action abroad. The Obama administration knows that intervention in Syria would be a long-term commitment with an outcome even more tricky than its expe­rience in Iraq, not to speak of the regional resentment against the USA that an intervention would be likely to stir up. Instead, and calamitously, the USA seems ready to supply the dissident forces with admittedly non-lethal equipment at present, but no doubt with weaponry later on as the crisis worsens. Western indecision has produced some botched and bizarre outcomes. At one remove, the USA is likely to find itself supporting the selfsame jihadists that it attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Even with European support, already pledged by France and, in the­ory, by Britain too, there is little likelihood of a successful and rapid outcome as happened in Libya. The Syrian crisis is far more complex – bringing together, as it does, the aspirations of the Arab Spring and the harsh realities of the Arab and Western struggle against the ‘Shi’a arc of extremism’ – an example, if ever there was, of the endless and unending complexities of the Middle East itself.

About the author:

George Joffé is a Research Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge


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