By Michael Weiss
On 18 August, President Obama announced in a written statement that a 41 year-old dynastic dictatorship in Syria had reached it expiry date. After five months of civil resistance to the Assad regime, 2,000 Syrians have been killed, 20,000 more jailed or missing, with a further 10,000 living in tents on the border with Turkey. These figures easily make Syria the longest, bloodiest and most cataclysmic of Arab Spring uprisings. To this extent, Obama’s announcement was arguably inevitable, but has prompted a frenzied debate by the foreign policy establishment about what the motivations behind this executive pronouncement.
While Obama’s plans for Syria remain unclear, it is fairly obvious what his announcement does not mean. Obama’s speech did not indicate the possibility of military intervention in Syria, for three simple reasons. To begin with, NATO, the United States and Europe are all suffering from a palpable sense of conflict exhaustion. Moreover, in contrast to Libya’s expansive geography, Syria is a densely-packed country where the proximity of military installations to civilian population centers is too close to allow for an aerial bombardment campaign without incurring heavy civilian casualties. Finally—and most persuasively—the Syrian opposition does not want a military intervention. At least not yet.
For months, both Syria’s diaspora dissidents and domestic grassroots movements have sought to topple Assad through military and political defections. The opposition has relied upon a combination of diplomatic rhetoric and tough economic sanctions to isolate and strangulate the regime, and induce officials to abandon Assad. While some have viewed this strategy as little more than wishful thinking, it’s effectiveness has been bolstered by the fact that Syria’s dictatorship is very much a family business of patronage.
Assad’s inner circle is largely constituted of members of his own family, related to him by blood or marriage; this is why his brother Maher al-Assad, although only officially designated as “Commander of 42nd Brigade Mobile Infantry,” in reality commands the whole of the elite Fourth Armored pision, as demonstrated by his official “stamp” on a leaked Syrian state document authorizing the military incursion into Deraa on 25 April.
Dr Radwan Ziadeh, the architect of the 150-strong opposition umbrella group, the National Initiative for Change (NIC), designated the now ex-Defense Minister General Ali Habib as one of two high-ranking figures to lead a transitional government to democracy. Ziadeh’s selection of Habib was strategic. To begin with, members of the NIC were in touch with Habib’s family prior to the formation of the group, and reportedly discovered that he was sympathetic to the Syrian protestors. Habib had also commanded the Syrian arm of the multinational coalition against Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, and is seen by many to be independent-minded. Tellingly, he was sacked by Assad a few weeks ago for refusing to orchestrate the siege of Hama. Finally, Habib is an Alawite, the minority sect to which Assad belongs which constitutes just 12 percent of the Syrian population. The opposition has reasoned that putting an Alawite in charge would help allay popular fears that the national uprising was a Sunni supremacist movement a favored propaganda theme peddled by the regime. In keeping with the opposition movement’s anti-sectarian character, Ziadeh also nominated the Syrian government’s Christian chief of staff, Dawud Rajha, to co-helm the transitional government.)
While a minority-led transitional government might not ultimately be capable of forestalling the sectarian civil war Assad has been fomenting through ethnically cleansing areas in north Syria and arming loyalists with sophisticated weaponry, such measures demonstrate a degree of political savvy by the opposition that many Western commentators have overlooked.
Crucially, since the start of the uprising in mid-March, the opposition has maintained that their quarrel is not with the army’s rank-and-file but with the mukhabarat, the Syrian security forces pided between local police and 17 branches of intelligence; and with the shabbiha death squads, paid by the regime to perpetrate the most brutal crackdowns on protestors, including the sort of house-to-house raids that Muammar Gaddafi only threatened in Libya. According to one Deraan oppositionist interviewed by the Henry Jackson Society in May: “The majority in the Army has no clue what is going on. They think we are armed people, and they are working under the guidance of the shabbiha and the security forces. We have started to notice and hear of splits, and the longer we drag this out, the more apparent it becomes.”
A few high-ranking defections have already taken place, most notably that of Colonel Hussain Harmoush, who has claimed to have defended the northern town Jisr al-Shughour from regime forces in June with a corps of about 100 soldiers. Rial al-Asaad’s newly formed Free Syrian Army (FSA) may not be a large or battle-ready corps but it is said to work hand-in-hand with the grassroots networks of activists on the ground. NOW Lebanon recently interviewed an unnamed rebel soldier who estimated 6,000 anti-regime defectors. When asked how army loyalists deal with mutiny, he replied: “Death is the fate of those defecting or those who refuse to obey orders to shoot at protesters. Most of the executions are happening at military prisons in Tedmor and Saadnaya, where officers are being shot every Monday.” This assessment concurs with the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s report on Syria, released the same day Obama called for Assad to step down, and which found evidence of the summary execution of defecting soldiers.
It remains unclear whether Washington’s hardened position towards Assad, not to mention the morale-boosting rebel victory in Libya, will impact the Syrian military calculus. However, unequivocal support for regime change by key members of the international community coupled with sanctions would surely imperil Assad further. The Syrian economy has already suffered from existing US and EU-imposed economic penalties. Its tourism and foreign investment sectors, which usually perform at reliably high levels (especially in the summer), have collapsed. The stock market dropped 41 per cent in the first seven months of 2011. Last month, the governor of the Central Bank warned that 70 per cent of foreign reserves had been spent feeding the state’s machinery of violence. Although Syria’s currency has remained stable, economic analysts suggest that this is may be attributable to emergency loans by Iran, now Assad’s only stalwart ally in the region. The Islamic Republic is known to be assisting and instructing Damascus in methods of repression. Several Iranian nationals, including the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), have been included in the sanctions bundles targeted at the Syrian regime.
On 12 August, the US announced a new round of sanctions to be imposed upon the Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary. Should the EU follow suit, such measures will substantially inhibit Assad’s ability to finance the assistance he has received from friendly rogue states such as North Korea, which recently dispatched a fleet of IT specialists to help censor internet activity in Syria, and which holds accounts at the Commercial Bank.
In recent weeks, credible rumours have circulated indicating that shabbiha gangs and other mercenaries have begun to abandon their posts because they have not been paid on time. To encourage this trend, the US and EU should impose crippling sanctions against Syria’s energy sector, which reportedly accounts for between one quarter and one third of state revenue, although that figure is likely higher now that other key income streams have dried up. According to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Syria’s state-owned oil monopoly Sytrol trades 385,000 barrels a day, Ninety percent of Syrian oil exports go to Europe. Royal Dutch Shell, Petro Canada and British-owned Gulfsands all have stakes in Syria’s biggest oil producer, Al-Furat Petroleum company.
If inpidual European governments, and the EU External Affairs office, impose sanctions on Syrian oil, Assad would have a huge shortfall in state revenues. Iran won’t buy that much from him, whatever the importance of Syria to their strategic calculations. Turkey, which is growing increasingly frustrated with Assad’s incorrigibility and which currently hosts about 20,000 Syrian refugees in a border camp, can also be pressured to reduce or even abandon trade with Damascus.
So far, the most impressive signs of cohesion within the Syrian opposition movement were shown at the Syria Conference for Change, held at the Mediterranean resort town of Antalya, Turkey between May 31 and June 2. The conference, which was attended by 350 oppositionists from Syria and the diaspora community, attracted the participation of over 68 opposition parties from various ideological backgrounds, dozens of independent dissidents and dozens of activists and protest leaders from inside Syria. A 31-member Consultative Council was elected and a “final declaration” was issued, committing all conference participants to building a “…democratic future…which respects human rights and protects freedom for all Syrians, including the freedom of belief, expression and practice of religion.”
The Consultative Council is not a government-in-exile; it has an “ambassadorial” function, as one member told me, of broadcasting the protestors’ message to the international community and liaising with grassroots groups like the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) and the Syrian Revolution Committee Unions (SRCUs). There is evidence that the Antalya assembly has the support of domestic Syrians. On 2 June, protestors in Homs chanted “We salute the conference.” Two different photographs of banners wielded on June 3 read, respectively, “O heroes of the Antalya Conference, you are our pulse and we are with you” and “The demands of the Antalya Conference are the demands of the Syrian people.” Additionally, the “independence” banner that was adopted at the conference was fused with the Syrian national flag in a 3,000-meter long pennant carried above the heads of a 100,000 protestors in the city of Hama on 2 June. “Hama will not kneel” was scrawled on the fabric.
This week, ambiguous news reports emerged relating to the formation of a Syrian National Council in Istanbul, although the declared purpose of this body is scarcely different from that of the Antalya Conference: to coordinate with local protestors and activists and unite around the goal of toppling of the Assad regime. Unless and until a coherent roadmap is presented by this National Council articulating their vision of transitioning Syria from dictatorship to democracy, the body will not be viewed as credible or legitimate by Western governments.
The Syrian opposition has every incentive to form a transitional council consisting of elected representatives with a clear plan for securing and Syria’s government and economic institutions and coordinating free and fair elections for a post-Assad democracy. Dr Ziadeh’s NIC manifesto is an excellent first step, offering concrete steps on key challenges, including de-Baathification, the consolidation of Syria’s many and redundant intelligence services, and the reincorporation of its state media.
The skeptics who lament Obama’s call for Assad’s ouster must answer for the implications of inaction. Would it really be desirable for the West to maintain normal relations with a mass-murderer who has earned the enmity of his own people, not to mention millions of horrified onlookers to his brutality? Or should the US and UK have tried to “contain” Assad a la Saddam? The latter policy required fighter jets; so far, these have not been forthcoming from any allied nation. And yet the promise shown by a peaceful and committed opposition undercuts the cynicism of those willing to define a regime’s “stability” by its disdain for human rights, its sponsorship of terrorist proxies, and its bullying threats for what life would be like without it.