Unravelling the Syrian crisis

Published in Syria

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Introduction: Background to the uprising

Nearly nine months into the Syrian uprising, the death toll, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), has reached a staggering 5 000 people (civilians, government soldiers, army defectors and members of armed opposition groups). Despite a consistently rising death toll and continued violence, the situation has reached an impasse.

The uprising began in March inspired by or as part of the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings which had engulfed Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. In the initial stages – from the earliest protests in Dar'aa – Syrians who took to the streets called for President Bashar al-Asad to implement reforms which he had promised since taking office in 2001. These early protests included expressions of love for the president. The heavy-handed response of the regime, however, determined that within weeks the situation developed into one where protesters became hardened in their stance and the predominant slogan of protesters opposing the regime segued to 'The people want the overthrow of the regime'.

Soon thereafter, it became evident that a 'third force' had entered the fray, taking advantage of the protests to further its own objectives and agenda. This included groups of armed men who pitted themselves militarily against the state. This body of armed opposition included a number of elements. Some were Syrians who had fought in Iraq and who had returned to their homes militarily trained, armed, and with a strong Sunni chauvinist ideology. Others were Lebanese – mainly from the disadvantaged Sunni majority areas around Tripoli in the north of Lebanon. Some genuinely wanted (militarily) to support a democratic transition; others aimed simply to create havoc and instability and undermine and weaken the regime. Some from the latter group were involved in attacks both on government troops and protesters. While some of the arms for this third force came from those who had fought in Iraq and elsewhere, most of it was smuggled in from Lebanon – funded and supplied by Saudi Arabia and Lebanon's Future Movement. Later, arms were also smuggled in from Jordan and Libya. In the main, the modus operandi of the third force element – which remained small for a long time – was to attack troops – either while troops were on duty in various towns where protests were taking place or by ambushing them on roads, in their homes, etc., and, to a lesser extent, random attacks on troops and protesters.

The past few months have seen the uprising take a decidedly militaristic turn – especially with a large number of soldiers who defected from the army and made common cause with other armed groups. Initially, the army defectors were hailed as heroes by protesters because they switched sides to join the protesters, but they soon decided to make use of their military training against the state rather than joining unarmed protests.

 The opposition

One of the reasons for the uprising not being able to proceed beyond a certain stage is the fractious nature of the opposition. The opposition includes groups within the country as well as groups in exile. The difficulty in communication between those inside and those outside further undermines cohesive action. Furthermore, ideological and other differences between the various groups means that attempts at unifying the opposition have met with little sustainable success. Currently, there are at least three coalitions of opposition groups outside the country, while inside there is an attempt at coordination through the Local Coordination Committees (LCC). However, the volatile security situation makes real coordination virtually impossible.

The most prominent of the external groups is the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is head-quartered in Istanbul. The most significant group within the SNC is the banned Ikhwanul-Muslimoon – the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The SNC sees itself following a trajectory similar to the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC). However, it has no base inside Syria, no popular mandate, and no means to launch the kind of campaign that the NTC did. It has attempted to campaign for 'recognition' by foreign powers, but has succeeded only in getting the 'recognition' of Libya's NTC. The SNC has called for foreign intervention in Syria, including a 'no-fly zone'. This call has also been seen in recent protests. However, not all opposition groups agree, and many regard any foreign intervention as disastrous for their struggle.

The leader of the self-styled Free Syrian Army (FSA), Riyadh al-Asaad, is based in Turkey. The FSA is a group of army defectors who claim to represent the interest of protesters and to act to protect them from the brutality of the state. However the actions of the FSA contradict this position. This can be seen in unprovoked attacks in various flashpoint areas against state security apparatuses. Additionally the FSA believes that the regime can only be overthrown through violence. There are suggestions that in certain areas there is co-ordination between the 'armed groups' and the FSA.

 The nature of the conflict

The 'uprising' in Syria may now be said to present itself in three forms:

  • Sporadic demonstrations as occur in some areas;

  • Ongoing, repeated demonstrations in other areas; and

  • Armed conflict.

Sporadic demonstrations have occurred in a number of towns and villages across the country. Sometimes these are sparked by an incident in another town, or a heavy-handed security force operation in the town itself. Other areas have been experiencing ongoing, repeated demonstrations– in some places almost every day; while in others every few days.

Finally, there are certain areas where armed clashes have taken place between, on the one hand, army defectors and other armed elements (either civilian or persons who have received some form of military training outside Syria) and the Syrian army, on the other. While the FSA is claiming ownership over all these elements and incidents, there is no proper command structure linking the internal armed groups to the FSA headquarters in Istanbul, and it is not clear whether the armed men within Syria will be willing to follow orders from outside if these orders contradict their own views. Thus far the FSA label has been convenient for them to claim ownership of actions, and will remain so as long as there is no attempt to impose a structure and strategy onto the local fighters. If this happens, we suspect that the FSA will be shown up to be just a set of disparate local armed groups.

Real fighting has been restricted to a few areas: Rastan (where the opposition armed elements were subdued); Homs (where fighting has been happening for more than three months); Dar'aa (where new fighting erupted in the past weeks); Idlib (where sporadic clashes have been occurring between the army, and defectors seeking refuge - or who are trying to escape over the Turkish border – rather than armed groups trying to capture territory); Hama (where fighting erupted a few weeks ago) and some areas on the outskirts of Damascus. Apart from these, the FSA has also claimed responsibility for a few sabotage operations. In none of these areas does the FSA (or the opposition more generally) control any territory (as for example, the opposition controlled Benghazi and western region in the Libyan conflict).

 The current situation

Amidst a stalemate that has gripped Syria over the past few months, new developments have led to the question of whether we will witness a game-changer any time soon. There have been two important developments that have created such a feeling.

First, on 19 December, Syria finally signed an Arab League plan that saw foreign observers entering Syria and fanning out across the country. Second, the past weeks have seen bitter fighting and a high death toll particularly in the north-western Idlib province which borders Turkey. Neither development (nor both together) is significant enough to signal any change in the Syrian landscape in the near future. However, the larger regional picture and Syria's position within that is noteworthy.

 International Scenario

On the international front, there are four sets of actors – with subsets within them.

  • Western powers – the most vocal being the United States, France, Germany and the UK;

  • The Arab League – including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc;

  • Syria's allies / supporters – mainly Russia, China, Iran and Iraq; and

  • Turkey.

Western powers have taken strong diplomatic positions against the Syrian regime and have implemented a range of sanctions over the past nine months. Beyond that, there is evidence that some within this group – particularly the CIA and the US State Department – have been providing other forms of support to the opposition, particularly the SNC.

The Arab League – which has not yet recovered from the Libyan imbroglio – has been more careful in dealing with Syria, and has attempted to position itself as a mediator. Its rhetoric has usually been harsher than its actions. The foreign observer agreement signed by Syria, which will allow foreign observers into areas across the country, is a coup for the League. It is also a coup for Syria which, by its signing, has forestalled the possibility that the League will refer the matter tithe UN Security Council. The strongest opponents of the Asad regime within the League are the GCC members – especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria (to a lesser extent) have been more supportive of Syria.

For the more vocal GCC members, there are two main objectives: 1) to attempt to install a Sunni government in Syria that will allow for more amicable relations with them (especially Saudi Arabia), and 2) to undercut the influence of Iran in the region and to break the 'arc of resistance' which stretches from Iran across Iraq through Syria to Lebanon. For them, Syria is more about undermining Iran – for political and theological reasons – than about Syria itself. A recent GCC meeting held in Riyadh had Syria and Iran high on its agenda amidst talk, sparked by Saudi King Abdullah, of the GCC going beyond cooperation and forming itself into a 'union'.

Of all the international players, Turkey has taken the hardest rhetorical line against the Asad regime. Furthermore, Turkey – and the AKP in particular – have been hosting the Syrian Ikhwan which they see as a mirror image of itself, and a possible loyal ally. Turkey hosts both the SNC and FSA. However, there are no indications that Turkey is willing to go beyond such rhetoric to taking any military action as is being called for by some opposition forces.

The pro-Syria camp remains resolute. Russia has much to lose if Asad falls. Syria is an important arms purchaser, and Syria hosts Russia's only Mediterranean naval base in Tartous. Besides arms contracts worth four billion dollars, Russia has also invested heavily in Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism – totalling 19.4 billion dollars in 2009. This includes building a natural gas processing plant near Homs and technical support for the Arab gas pipeline. A Russian oil company announced in January that it would spend 12.8 million dollars drilling wells near the Iraqi border. Ultimately, in the race with the West for allies and proxies, Syria is Russia's only ally in the Arab world.

Both Russia and China also see the 'ceding' of Syria to the West as an invitation to extend NATO and US power further into the Asian continent and thus threatening their general geopolitical interests. For Iran, Syria is one of its most critical allies. It is Iran's main ally in the Arab world and is central to its 'arc of resistance' model. Although Iran– along with Russia and China – has become frustrated with Asad's lack of movement on reforms, it will not abandon Syria unless it can make a deal with the opposition. In the current state of affairs this is, however, highly improbable. To strengthen its support for Syria, Iran recently signed a free trade agreement with the country. Despite these expressions of support, Iran's assessment is that if matters continue along the current trajectory, the Asad regime will not be able to survive until the end of 2012. Iran also held secret talks with members of the Syrian opposition in order to assess their positions, strength and possibilities for their being willing to work with Iran in the future.

The international situation, then, has seen very firm camps on the Syrian issue, and there is not likely to be much movement in allegiances in the near future.

The possibility – which gets mentioned every so often – of foreign military intervention remains very remote. No western country is keen to go that route – particularly after the messy situation in Libya. France, which had made such noises for a while, has backtracked and regards its involvement in any intervention as harmful to its interests. Western countries would be happier to have Turkey intervene, but Turkey is not even moving on the idea of a buffer zone. Neighbouring Syria, Turkey is concerned about the impact of a war in Syria on its own house. Despite harsh words from some in the Turkish government, the opposition to Syria is not universal within Turkish society, the Turkish political scene or the Turkish army.

 Currently in the uprising

The past weeks have seen fierce fighting in the Idlib province with high death tolls resulting. Most fatalities are of armed people – defectors and soldiers, with others being mostly civilians caught in the crossfire. A large number of soldiers have been killed in the fighting, and the army has also lost a number of vehicles and equipment.

None of this, however, points to any possibility of a military victory by the opposition over the state. The Syrian army has still not used its strongest units in areas like Idlib and Homs. It is likely that, despite the confidence of the state that it will prevail, it is not willing entirely to discount the possibility that its army might be confronted by foreign forces and thus does not want to exhaust all its forces on internal battles. Furthermore, the areas where fighting is taking place –notably Homs – are not under the control of the opposition. Skirmishes are frequent; deaths occur on both sides, but by no stretch of the imagination are these areas incontestably in the hands of any opposition formation.

In broader terms, the internal opposition remains split. While there is some coordination of protests exercised by the LCC, there is not a general cohesiveness within the opposition. The internal opposition is also split between those who support dialogue with the state (notably long-time dissenters from the left and nationalist groups) and those who oppose any dialogue and wantonly the downfall of the regime (such as those in the LCC). The vastness of the country also makes coordination difficult.

The external opposition seems to have found some sense of organisational coherence within the Syrian National Council which has, of late, been very active on the diplomatic front. However, not all is rosy within the SNC. The organisation is plagued by internal bickering, criticism that it has an Islamist bent and, because of the many exiles in its ranks, is not representative of the protesters in Syria. There remain differences between the various components of the coalition, with the dominant group – the Muslim Brotherhood – using its position to ignore other groups and deal directly with SNC president Burhan Ghalioun. Furthermore, there is currently a re-evaluation within the SNC regarding its position on the Arab League plan. The regime's signing of the plan – with most of its amendments taken on board – has somewhat undermined the SNC's position and caused it to reassess how it relates to the League and to the League's attempts at facilitating dialogue between the regime and the opposition.

The SNC has, thus far, been keener on some forms of intervention (diplomatic and even, possibly, military) by western powers and Turkey than action by the League. Indeed, the SNC currently seems to be in a position where, rather than determining a programme and agenda for which it can win support, is looking to western proposals that it can support. The SNC's recent conference in Tunis emerged with some concrete resolutions, mainly with regard to building its internal structures. The conference established bureaus for foreign relations, human rights and revolutionary support, among others. Interestingly, its vision for a future Syria includes an important role for the military. Indeed, among the discussions at the conference were how the military might be won over and the possibility of having Asad hand over power to the military while he goes into exile. Some SNC members claim they have already made contact with senior military officers who have agreed to defect if provided with protection. This is significant as it indicates an acceptance by the SNC that the Syrian military is central to a resolution of the crisis and to the future in Syria - despite the fact that it is this same military that is daily killing protesters and that the military is an integral part of the regime.

While there is – at a public level – respectful discussion between the SNC and the FSA, indications are that the relationship between the military opposition and the SNC is a difficult one. One indication of this is the fact that no FSA representatives were invited for the SNC conference in Tunis. In summary, neither the state of the uprising and armed conflict nor the state of the opposition can lead one to believe that there is impending change form that quarter.

A disturbing turn in the uprising has been the increasingly sectarian expressions that have emerged, with sectarian attacks, killings and other brutalities now having become a usual part of the battle between the regime and the opposition.

 Regime support

Despite seven months of sustained protests and fighting, it is clear that the Syrian nation as a whole has not risen up against the regime. On the one hand, there is a large number of people who oppose the regime but are concerned about the repercussions for the country of a revolution-type scenario. On the other hand, the regime still has substantial active support. Large demonstrations continue to be held in support of Asad and the government, and this support for the regime shows no sign of altering radically any time soon. The business community and clergy maintain their support. Asad got a boost earlier this month when a range of clerics - of various Christian denominations, Sunni Muslim, Shi'a Muslim and Alawi – publicly expressed support for him and confidence in his ability to maintain stability in Syria. There is also no indication that the army or the security forces – or even significant sections of either – will switch sides. Defections in the army are of a small number of mostly junior soldiers rather than officers.


Despite all kinds of movement, diplomatic activity and internal unrest in Syria, there is not much likelihood that entrenched positions – within and without the country – will change soon. If it continues along the current trajectory, the Syrian crisis will be a protracted one, and talk of either overthrowing the regime or of returning the country to calm within the next few months are fanciful. A situation is developing within Syria of extreme polarisation, with sectarianism rife and violence becoming an accepted option for many.

Faced with such a scenario, there seems to be little potential for a breakthrough in the crisis. Any breakthrough will be dependent on certain conditions:

  • Acceptance by all sides that the only possible way forward is dialogue and negotiating Syria out of its crisis. Some opposition groups – especially the SNC – reject dialogue with the regime. In a similar vein the regime rejects the idea of talking to the SNC. Such hard-line positions will sink the country further into a morass rather than extricate it from the situation.

  • An understanding that, at the very least, such dialogue will result – immediately – in political pluralism, greater exercise of freedoms by the population and civil society, and greater control over the work of the security forces.

  • An acceptance that a precondition for future movement will entail the end of one-party rule.

The most real possibility for a breaking of the impasse is not one that is attained by Syrians but one reached through an internationally-agreed solution that involves Russia, the United States, Iran and Qatar. Indications are that Russia and the US have already begun discussions about a mutually-agreed way to resolve the Syrian crisis. Iran and Qatar (representing the pro-regime and pro-opposition blocs respectively) will watch these developments with keenness and will be useful to convince their respective Syrian partners to accept a deal.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 15:18

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