12 June 2012
The "Dark Side" of the Syrian Transition and its Potentially Dire Regional Consequences
Syria stands on the brink of a civil war that may destabilze the wider Middle East.
Prepared by: Philippe Droz-Vincent
The Syrian uprising began in ways similar to that of other Arab countries with the crucial role of societal mobilizations in public spaces against authoritarian rule, energized by an imitation/domino effect across the Arab world with the role of satellite TV (initially Al-Jazeera) and new information and communication technologies. But, quite differently from the short Tunisian and Egyptian movements (respectively, 11 and 18 days), the Syrian uprising has endured for more than a year, with the situation remaining completely inconclusive at the time of writing. It has given way to a mutually hurting stalemate between, on the one hand, the opposition, which remains mobilized and whose essential constituencies on the ground do not want to give up because they know that they have seized a chance to change their future in ways that will not be replicated later if they give up now, and, on the other hand, the regime, which remains resilient in its repressive capabilities.
Two trends are prominent in the current Syrian crisis at the time of writing (March 2012).
On the one hand, although massive societal mobilizations against authoritarian rule in Syria began with peaceful and unarmed demonstrations (demonstrators recurrently shouted slogans like “selmiyye, selmiyye” – peacefully, peacefully – when facing harsh repression), there has been an increased militarization of the Syrian uprising, moving the situation in the country toward the early stages of a civil war: the death toll is well over the bottom limit of 1,000 required by political science to define an event as a civil war and not just as a series of political disruptions; it is approaching more than 10,000 dead at the time of writing and reaching a stage that in the 1980s led Syria to be dubbed “a state of barbary” (Michel Seurat). The Syrian uprising has kept some features of its initial developments (the massive pacific mobilizations in public spaces), but it is now veering toward a protracted militarized conflict. On the other hand, there has been an increased internationalization of the Syrian question; and, with the huge difficulties encountered by potential interveners in any attempt to replicate a Libyan model to help resolve the stalemate between the regime and the opposition through the UN Security Council, regional actors are taking important roles in the Syrian quagmire.
The risks of a new protracted conflict in the Middle East?
Societal mobilizations in Syria have thus given way to an increasing militarization of the popular uprising, with civil war looming as a possible outcome. Three factors have shaped the shift from a unarmed and peaceful movement towards a militarized uprising.
Firstly, the immediate fate of these societal mobilizations is related to the nature of the armed forces involved. In Syria, when the police are overwhelmed by massive societal mobilizations in public spaces, the military (at least its elite – clan-staffed – parts) is much more prone to answer positively to any order by the regime to use extreme violence to suppress the uprising by using harsher means than the usual “insidious” violence displayed by authoritarianism, i.e. the fear of repression, the actual deployment of security forces in civilian clothes in public spaces, arbitrary arrests, torture. Alawite officers close to the Assad regime have staffed the high ranks of the army, with the unwritten rule that every combat unit would be under the command, official or in a more indirect way, of an Alawite, and Alawite soldiers have been recruited disproportionately in some elite units. This results in a fractured military, with well-to-do elite units numbering 40,000 to 70,000 men, as opposed to poorly equipped and trained regular units numbering 300,000 to 350,000 personnel, while the regular military is balanced with heavily armed paramilitary forces. Elite units were quickly called on to carry out repressive tasks after March 2011. Also, the Syrian security apparatus, especially its political branches ( mukhabarat), is much more “militarized” in Syria than in Egypt or Tunisia, where the Interior Ministry was at the forefront of repression and had a huge and autonomous security apparatus: political security in Syria is a military affair, with the dreaded Air Force security apparatus ( istikhbarat jawiya and many other units) being a stronghold of the Assad regime since the early 1970s. With the use of the military in repression, the death toll – the UN commissioner for human rights has given up any count – has rapidly risen, shaping the uprising as a militarized conflict.
Secondly, the potential for civil war is high because, quite differently from the harsh repression of earlier localized sectoral movements (the liberals of the Damascus declaration after 2005, the Kurds in the north-east in 2004) or Islamist uprisings (in the 1980s), in 2012 the full might of state repression, including the military, is being exerted against massive, broad-based, non-sectoral, apolitical societal mobilizations, i.e. against large, mobilized sections of society convened around a generic slogan – the overthrow of the regime or isqat al-nizam – not just against delimited societal sectors.
The prospect of massive killings of disarmed and peaceful civilians is always problematic for any army. The uneasiness inside the Syrian military has broadened, because the army has become overstretched by its many deployments as a consequence of the regime’s calls for the entry of more and more regular – as opposed to elite – units to face the massive character of the uprising. As the potential for violence grows with the use of the regular military in acts of repression, the potential for dissidence (inshiqaq ) within the army, especially among the rank and file and then increasingly among officers, is also on the rise. There has been increasing dissidence within the army, giving birth to the Syrian Free Officers movement and then the Free Syrian Army (FSA, Al-jaisch al-suri al-hurr); thus, after the summer of 2011, the Syrian anti-regime movement became increasingly militarized. However, the true nature and extent of dissent within the army are unknown, because this is a fundamental object of propaganda: for the regime, to preserve the impression that its army remains loyal, and for the opposition, to project the image of an increasing flow of defections that will prod undecided army personal in regular units overwhelmingly staffed by Sunnis to switch sides.
Thirdly, politicized confessionalism has increasingly tainted the militarized Syrian uprising. Thus, the conflict in Syria has taken on an increasingly sectarian taint, with the multiplication of confessional slaughters with decapitated corpses on public display, targeted killings, and the uncovering of mass graves attributed to one religious grouping or another, which help fuel sectarian fears and are indicative of a deepening of the Syrian crisis.
Ethnic labels and confessional plurality are not ipso facto drivers of conflict unless they are politicized into sectarian exclusivity in times of heightened tensions. Confessionalism was historically not a political argument in Syrian politics and is quite different from the geographic divisions and the fragmentation of the Syrian political space between cities and countryside, between classes, and between rival “agrocities” that were essential features of Syrian politics from independence to the 1970s; but, since the 1970s, sectarianism has insinuated itself into political squabbles. The lesson of the 2011 Arab Spring is that societies are active and can empower themselves with democratic demands and engineer “regime change”. But Arab societies have also been enfeebled by decades of authoritarian rule and are more vulnerable to sectarian fears.
Politicized confessionalism is also a direct product of the regime’s deliberate (strategic) decision to let the country border on civil war and to present itself as a last recourse to stave off chaos. The regime has openly threatened the opposition with the potential for fitna, a heavily loaded term in Arab/Islamic political debates accusing the adversary of breaking ranks with and disrupting the unity of the community. The Assad regime seems to have provoked confessional or tribal infighting in mixed Syrian regions (Lattaquie, Banyas, Homs …), unleashing rogue militia recruited in the Alawite mountains, the “Chabihha”. Conversely, the FSA is essentially staffed with Sunni Muslims – but is less inspired by Sunni Islamism than some of its counterparts (“revolutionary” brigades) in Libya – and has gained a free hand in numerous Syrian villages or quarters where it can benefit from support, shelters and hideouts (the majority of the Syrian population is Sunni), therefore the conflict tends increasingly to be seen in sectarian terms.
One year after the beginnings of the uprising and with the increasing militarization of the conflict over the last seven months, Syria has entered a new phase with a growing risk of civil war, or, at least for the moment (March 2012), a “mutually hurting stalemate” before civil war. Non-violent or unarmed protest that was previously an asset of the opposition as it faces the “infrastructural” power of the state has been sidelined. Violence has become an argument to delegitimize the other side. The debate over whether the uprising is peaceful or not has become an object of propaganda as the regime portrays demonstrators as armed gangs and sectarian terrorists, whereas the opposition denies any violence, except when the FSA protects peaceful demonstrations. Bombings in Damascus (December 2011) and Aleppo (February 2012) have been accompanied by the displaying of particularly gruesome and bloody pictures on official Syrian television and websites. Increased militarization might therefore play to the regime’s advantage.
With such underground forces in motion, Syria might become a dangerous regional hot spot of conflict. Once such a violent conflict is initiated in a volatile regional such as the Middle East, it will not be easy to extinguish, with available flows of arms, transnational groups, jihadists waiting for fertile ground, the dismantling of security forces, the rise of militias and the proliferation of various armed groups (with an interplay of banditry and politics, as exemplified by the rise of abductions for ransom). The dirty games of violent militia-controlled politics in Syria that have begun to entrench themselves in local practices, as shown by numerous gruesome videos aired on the Internet, will have consequences for the future of the country.
And the new nature of the Syrian uprising, reflecting a kind of “dark side” of Arab transitions – the risk of civil war – is a dire omen for the region: the very existence of this kind of conflict in a highly destabilized Middle East is a source of concern. It has had a direct spillover effect in Lebanon, with the FSA establishing bases on the Lebanese-Syrian border and with the flow of Syrian refugees (also in Jordan and Turkey). It might destabilize the complex sectarian political balance in Lebanon, with the complicity of Lebanese politicians, and some localized clashes have already been reported in Tripoli between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods. It might also have a destabilizing effect on Iraq, where Sunni militants, disenchanted with Prime Minister Maliki, might find in Eastern areas no longer controlled by Syria a strategic depth to relaunch their struggle against Shia rulers in Baghdad that was stopped after their allegiance shift during the American “surge” in 2007-10 (the Iraqi government has not enforced the Arab League’s sanctions on Syria and has financially supported the Syrian regime).
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Philippe Droz-Vincent is an assistant professor of political science in international relations and comparative politics.
This article was originally published by NOREF and is available here.