Sunday, July 22, 2012

Syria: An Analysis

Last Wednesday was a milestone for the Syrian revolution. It is clear now that the Free Syrian Army have been re-organising and changing their methods. No longer do they try to hold ground in the face of the Syrian army. Instead, they are engaged in what can only be described as a textbook guerrilla war. I think this change has taken place since their disastrous attempt to make a stand at Bab Amr in Homs. Since then, they have been striking the regime wherever it is weak, melting away when it tries to strike back, and have been reorganising themselves.

Having taken over parts of Damascus for the past few days, they are now declaring the battle for the liberation of Aleppo begun. It seems now that they have abandoned their initial attempt to wrest control of Damascus. On one level these might seem as wild exaggerations, but on the other this might be an attempt at dissimulation and misinformation. In doing so they would keep the Assad regime constantly guessing where they will strike next, and reacting rather defining the pace of the war. Gone are the days when the Syrian army would declare campaigns for this or that region of the country. It seems to me now that they are going to be dragged to exhaustion by constant attacks throughout the country. The taking over of border checkpoints is not much use, but it is politically significant, and means that the regime has to keep troops at the borders, constantly chasing after units there rather than keeping them close to its power bases

As for Manaf Tlass, there is still no sign of the man. He has yet to make the promised speech declaring his intentions for the future, and yet to make a public appearance. More and more pictures of him with his cigar are in circulation than ever before, and many people continue to see in him a suitable strong man for a post-Assad regime. This would be bad news for democracy, but it would reinforce the view that Syria is now the frontline for a Sunni-Shiite divide. Post-Assad Syria is going to be unmistakeably Sunni in its outlook, and a drastic re-alignment of its foreign policy is going to redraw the map of the region yet again.

International Coverage

The coverage of Syria has changed noticeably since the Wednesday bombing that almost decapitated Assad's inner circle. The talk now is about what comes after Assad. Most noticably, Assad's allies have also been shaken. The latest speech by Hassan Nasrallah showed a man desperately trying to shore up support for his ally, praising men such as Assef Shawkat as honourable men who had supported the Palestinian cause. Angrily, Nasrallah denounced their assassinations, and reinforced his previous position that Syria was being targeted for its foreign policy.

The Humanitarian Situation

People continue to stream out of Damascus and the outlying areas. In spite of that, there are far more people who have decided to stay. They do so out of economic necessities, fear of the unknown, and a general hope that things will get better soon. In some parts of the city life continues to carry on relatively normally, but the gunfire and the sounds of explosions are a constant feature. In spite of that it seems that this is the calm before the storm, and the real worry is how these hundreds of thousands of people will fare should the fighting in the city take on a more violent turn.

Iraq, the day before yesterday, announced that it will be closing its borders to Syrian refugees. This is in stark contrast to Syria allowing in over two and a half million Iraqi refugees after the 2003 invasion. This is indicative of the government that now controls the country. Al Maliki was given refuge in Syria by the Assad regime, and it is not so much Baathism that he detested so much as it is the Sunnism of the Saddamite dictatorship. Today it is clear that his support cuts across ideology, and in line with the Iranian and Hezbullah policy towards the revolution, he seems quite happy to assist Assad's regime with such little gestures. I would be wary of all statements emerging from Iraq about Syria.

Interestingly enough, the Security Council quickly rushed through a resolution, after months of deadlock, to extend the UN monitors mission by thirty days. This was supported by Russia unconditionally. The key question is, why? The only explanation is that there is a big fear that events on the ground will speed ahead of the international community's intention. There is probably a real worry that Assad will fall before a suitable replacement can be found, and this only furthers my belief that neither East nor West would like to see him go, at least not before they are ready.

Chemical Weapons

A lot of stink has arisen about this recently, and this will only increase. Israel is now making direct comments about the events in Syria, and there have been rumours that Israel will intervene to stop chemical weapons from reaching the hands of undesirable groups, ie. Hezbullah. I don't know what to make of that. If the Israelis want to do something then they usually do, and let the world figure it out later. If such a scenario was true then we wouldn't have heard a peep out of them.

As for Assad using chemical weapons against Syrians, anything is possible. On one level, common sense tells me that he might as well put his neck in a noose and take a drop should he go down this route. Russia and China would be helpless if the international community hits the roof on this, and there have been sounds that such an option is completely unacceptable. On the other level, Assad has already killed over twenty thousand Syrians by claiming that a mysterious other side is doing it and lying through his teeth. Might he not do the same with a chemical attack behind similar lies and dissimulation? I just cannot discount this.

Grass roots

Whatever happens from here, one thing is utterly certain. There is a growing network of grass roots activists that is emerging, and this is something that will not go away regardless of who is controlling Syria. There will be long term instability, but it will also be next to impossible to govern the information coming out of the country, or flowing through the country. Anybody who comes into power following Assad will have to answer to an angry, highly educated, and active population that are now speaking to each other more than in a generation. Across the world, Assad's regime might have networked its way through journalists, MP's and rich industrialists or business moguls, but Syria's regular people have also been doing their networking. The Syrian ex-pat community in the Gulf region are extremely old and pre-date the Baath party's domination of their homeland. Syrian ex-pat money, and connections, in the Gulf are a key factor in keeping the revolution alive, and their informal network of support for the Free Syrian Army, and for affected people, has proved vital. Throughout the world, Syrians who were once afraid of being seen or reported on have now turned the table on known informants and regime sympathisers. Whilst anti-government demonstrations have swelled and support for the revolution has grown, pro-Assad demonstrations have shrunk noticeably, and Assad supporters are no longer as visible as they once were. In some cases there has been violence according to my sources.

Perhaps most tellingly, Assad sympathizers in Syria are also starting to escape the country. The regime is unable to protect them, and many have left the country after receiving death threats. It is possible that a substantial number of defections for previous regime stalwarts is more in the hope of saving their skins than risking their lives at the mercy of an angry and victorious Free Syrian Army. This is a bit like Germans preferring to surrender to the West than the Soviets during the Second World War.


Where is Syria going from here? More instability, more violence, but also a steady chipping away of the regime's strength. The opposition is going to continue its guerrilla war, and more and more defections will take place until only a hard core remains with Assad. With heavy weaponry he can continue to strike at his enemies from afar, but already vast swathes of the country are beyond his control. He cannot be every where all of the time, and can only be in the most important places some of the time. When he attacks the FSA melts away, and when he leaves an area the FSA return. The big focus now should be on how a post-Assad Syria will be managed. There is a danger period, once the regime falls, which could risk drowning the country in chaos. This must be avoided at all costs, and it is here that the difference with Iraq will be most telling. Iraq was invaded by an incompetent foreign power that cared little for how the country managed itself. In Syria it is a popular revolution that became an armed uprising. The Free Syrian Army is - in spite of my misgivings - made up of Syrian army deserters and volunteers. They will live here long after Assad has been removed from power, and it is in their interest to ensure that the country is secured and calm.

Missing from all this analysis is the input of the Syrian oppositions and political figures. In this coming period, I fear that it is those with the guns who will determine the nature of the future political makeup. The FSA will have to prove its anti-dictatorial credentials by submitting itself to civilian rule, or at least provide the security necessary for a future national Syrian government to emerge. If it fails in that final task, then removing Assad would have been futile, and Syrians would have swapped one military dictatorship for another. This must not happen.

1 comment:

Safiya Outlines said...

Salaam Alaikum,

A better analysis then 99.99% of what is currently being written. Thanks for this.