Syria: Looking For The Exit


June 13, 2012: There's a civil war going on but not your typical idea of a civil war. People are armed and killing each other. Territory is changing hands and loyalties are shifting. But one of the most vital measurements is rarely mentioned and that is goodwill. Call this "image", media, and political clout, or whatever, but it is a very scarce and critical asset for the Assad government. Since the 1980s, the Assad family has cultivated a reputation as benevolent dictators. The Assads paid a lot of attention to their media and diplomatic image. Unlike Kaddafi in Libya and Saddam in Iraq, the Assads were approachable and "reasonable." This despite the fact that the Assads provided sanctuary and support for some of the worst terror groups on the planet. But they kept these connections quiet and got quite good at denying the presence of terrorist groups based in Syria. In this the Assads had the support of most Arabs. That's because most of the Syria based terrorists were focused on Israel. After 2003, many Sunni groups were trying to overthrow the elected Shia government of Iraq. This was a very popular effort with most Arabs (who are Sunni). Iraq is one of those few Arab nations with a Shia majority. Sunni Arabs always felt better if Iraq was run by the Sunni Arab minority. Most Iraqis disagreed and the American invasion, despite protests from Sunni Arab states, brought elections that created the first Shia run government in centuries. This support of terrorism in Iraq cost Syria a lot of good will in the Arab world, and the growing number of atrocities is further depleting that goodwill. Once the Assads are seen as "no better than Kaddafi" the end is close.

The great irony of the Syrian support for Sunni Arab terrorists in Iraq was that the Assads are Shia (or at least a semi-Shia sect called Alawites). Moreover, the Assads are allies of Iran, the leader and "protector" of Shia everywhere. Iran is also seen as the main threat to the Sunni Arab world. Iran is a religious dictatorship with various factions, some of them willing to support Sunni Arab terrorists whose main goal was to kill lots of Iraqi Shias in order to start a civil war that would put the Sunni Arab minority back in power. This was always a fantasy and after three years of effort, the Iraqi Sunni Arab tribes turned on the Sunni terrorists and that was the end of that. The Iranian radicals tolerated all this slaughter in an attempt to get pro-Iran radical Iraqi Shia in power. That didn't work either, as most Iraqis had had enough of terrorism and violence and don't want the kind of religious dictatorship that exists in Iran.

In Syria no one wants a civil war. The economy is fragile, poverty is widespread, and most Syrians do want change. The problem for the Assads is that many of their supporters (the urban upper and middle class) also want change. The Assad family had bought the support of the upper and middle classes by handing out economic opportunities and respecting the wealth of the rich families as long as they remained loyal. All that is in doubt now, as the security forces try to maintain control of the urban areas and the Assads try to cope with an economy crippled by violence and sanctions. Iran is supplying billions of dollars in cash to help the Assads get around the sanctions and keep their supporters happy. But Iranian cash isn't enough to keep the Assad supporters loyal. And Iranian cash is running short because of growing sanctions against Iranian oil exports. Assad supporters are terrified of the future. History is not on the side of the Assads and most Arabs now believe this. Many Arabs also believe in Islamic conservatism but all of them believe in changes that will reduce corruption and tyranny. Syria is, after all, a police state in which the well-connected (with the Assads) have enormous economic clout. That's the kind of corruption Syrians, and Arabs in general, would like to see less of.

As long as the rebels can keep the armed opposition to the government going, the Assads are losing. If this goes on long enough (weeks, months, depending on what sort of spectacular events take place), more core supporters of the Assads will start looking to cut a deal. Many of these wealthy families have been economic pillars of the country for generations, or even centuries. They will flee if they have to but they would rather be part of the new Syria and some of those discussions are already taking place. The Assads know it, and they know they can only halt this dangerous chatter if they can shut down the rebels. But to do that requires a lot more dead civilians than the Assad public image can tolerate. The rebellion is too widespread and intense for the security forces (at least the ones that can be trusted) to stamp out quickly. Russia is sending more powerful weapons (electronic surveillance gear and helicopter gunships), while Iran is sending expert killers and anti-terrorism experts. The Assads knew they were in trouble last year when it became obvious that negotiating their way out of this uprising was no longer going to work. Now they face a time limit on how long they have to try a violent solution to the resistance.

The rebels are more frequently using roadside bombs and ambushes (with RPGs and machine-guns) against army and police convoys. There are more instances of bombs going off in urban areas and economic targets (like oil pipelines) are also being attacked. Sanctions prevent Syria from legally exporting its oil (the main source of foreign currency for the government) and the rebel attacks on the oil facilities prevent the government from smuggling any oil out. There are always smugglers willing to do business with anyone. But if there's no oil to move across the border, the smugglers are of no use.

Neither NATO nor the Arab League is willing to provide air support for the rebels. Some NATO countries are providing equipment, training, and sanctuary for armed and unarmed rebels. Some Arab states are providing a lot of weapons, cash, and equipment. For the moment NATO and the Arab League are just hoping the Assads quit and all this unpleasantness stops. That is less likely to happen as long as Russia and Iran are determined to help the Assads prevail. Russia does not like to see its old dictator-buddies overthrown by popular uprisings. Iran does not want to lose control of Syria and southern Lebanon (via the Shia Hezbollah militia there). Losing Syria would be a major setback for Iran, whose long-term goal is replacing Saudi Arabia as titular head of the Islamic world and protector of the most holy shrines (Mecca and Medina).

It's hard to get accurate numbers but it appears that the deaths in Syria are running, or near, to a thousand a week. There are many more wounded and even more driven from their homes by the violence. A growing number of European politicians and diplomats are admitting that this is developing like Bosnia did in the early 1990s, where the West stood by as Serbian nationalists slaughtered thousands of civilians (most of them Moslem). The Arab world supplied weapons and cash to the Bosnians back then, but this time they can do more but they do not have sufficient unity to carry that out.

The army is falling apart, with desertions growing. Many units are kept in their bases, essentially under guard by the more loyal troops. But desertions are taking place anyway. The government wants to avoid entire units deserting and taking all their weapons with them. To make up for a manpower shortage the government has organized militias from it loyalists. These guys are little better than undisciplined thugs and are responsible for most of the atrocities.

The UN monitors are being fired on and blocked from seeing massacre sites. The UN can't really do anything as long as Russia backs the Assads. Lots of hand-wringing but not much else from the UN.

June 12, 2012: More explosions are heard in Damascus, the largest city and capital. This is supposed to be a solidly pro-Assad area, but it's not. That is very embarrassing to the Assads, especially with so many foreigners in Damascus. All of Syria's major cities are experiencing incidents of gunfire and explosions. This means some members of the pro-Assad families are working for the rebels.

June 11, 2012: The army attacked more rebel held towns (like Rastan and Talbiseh) near the central Syrian city of Homs. The army uses attacks on civilians to intimidate the armed rebels and persuade them to withdraw (in order to reduce the deaths of women and children). But the armed rebels who go away, just show up somewhere else in a few days.

The U.S. has openly protested the shipment of Russian helicopter gunships to Syria. These have not arrived yet and revealing American espionage capabilities is part of an effort to get the Russians to halt the shipment. There's a remote possibility that NATO might halt the Russian cargo ship but that would cause a lot of tension with Russia. Many in NATO point out that the Russians are pretty hostile towards the West anyway, and why let them get away with helping to kill a lot more Syrian civilians. Russia is offering to help mediate talks with the Assads to arrange a graceful exit of the Assads but not the installation of a democracy.

June 10, 2012: The SNC (Syrian National Council) is the main rebel political organization and it is having a hard time maintaining unity. Today a new leader took over, Abdulbaset Sida, a Syrian Kurd living in exile in Sweden. The lack of party politics in Syria since the 1960s, has left most Syrians with little experience in forming coalitions and settling differences quickly and peaceably. The Assads prefer it that way, but the SNC is trying to catch up and create a viable political, as well as armed, resistance.





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