Syria’s Tipping Point
3 Nov 2011
Brussels, 3 November 2011: Syria's acceptance of the Arab League proposal to defuse the crisis presents an eleventh-hour opportunity to seek a negotiated transition before the conflict takes an even uglier turn. Despite understandable scepticism, both the protest movement and the international community ought to give this initiative a fair chance; for either one to dismiss or undermine it would be to offer the regime justification for rejecting both the deal and responsibility for its failure. The regime's intentions soon will be put to the test. In coming days, protesters will take to the streets with renewed energy, probing President Bashar al Assad's sincerity after months of rising repression; they cannot be expected to show patience for protracted political talks devoid of swift, tangible results on the ground. The various strands of the opposition ought to publicly reject violent attacks against security forces and accept to engage in a dialogue with no condition other than the regime's implementation of the plan. Likewise the international community should fully endorse the deal and adjust its reaction to developments on the ground. Only by giving Damascus a genuine opportunity to live up to its commitments under the plan can the international community reach consensus on holding it accountable should it choose to flout them.
The agreement unquestionably is flawed. It calls for a halt to violence and for the regime to withdraw its forces, release those detained as a result of recent events, grant access to the Arab League as well as Arab and international media, and, within two weeks, initiate a dialogue with the opposition under League auspices. But it does so in relatively vague terms, thereby virtually ensuring that the regime will try to re-negotiate in practice what it has already approved in principle. The agreement does not explicitly mention the right to peaceful demonstrations, a key opposition demand. Likewise, it fails to provide a mechanism for effective on-the-ground monitoring to supervise implementation. As far as one can tell, it is backed by neither meaningful incentives nor credible threats in the event the regime reneges on its commitments or plays for time. More fundamentally, the agreement may simply be unrealistic. It is hard to imagine why the regime would risk jeopardizing its most significant achievement to date, namely preventing the kind of mass demonstrations that would conclusively establish its lack of legitimacy – and that the protest movement will now seek to organise. Indeed, large numbers of Syrians almost certainly will take to the streets – including in Damascus – were they to conclude that the deal provides them with some protection.
This could well be a last chance. If peaceful protests face continued repression in coming days, a more violent and dangerous confrontation is almost certain to develop. Syria's eight-month-old uprising is fast approaching a dangerous tipping point.
Behind the thin veil of a so-called reform process that has been premised on the need to restore "law and order", the regime has in the past three months almost entirely delegated the task of dealing with popular discontent to its security services. In turn, their indiscriminate violence and sectarian behaviour has begun to radicalise the street. The regime's claim that it is exclusively eradicating armed groups while in reality treating non-violent demonstrators with equal ferocity is doing nothing to weaken the former while pushing the latter to the brink. The protesters' overall restraint has been remarkable and so far has helped avoid descent into all-out civil war. But there are unmistakable signs of change.
Among demonstrators, the prospect of armed resistance is gaining appeal. A pattern of attacks against regime forces has emerged in border areas. Homs has served as a magnet for a steady stream of army defectors whose success in resisting regime attempts to retake the city is inspiring others to emulate its more confrontational tactics. Although still expensive, rudimentary weapons are now widely available due to intensive smuggling. Meanwhile, uninhibited brutality of regime henchmen, chiefly members of the Allawite minority, is fuelling sectarian retribution. Long an imaginary part of the regime's propaganda, such retaliation is becoming a reality, particularly in central Syria.
For now, no credible evidence has emerged to suggest significant, organised foreign support for a developing insurgency; the regime frequently displays stacks of weapons, cash and telecommunications technology it claims to have seized from armed groups, yet has offered no proof regarding the identity and role of outside backers. This too could change. Already, Turkey is playing host to the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, which has openly claimed responsibility for attacks against Syrian forces. Some among the Syrian opposition make no secret of their goal to lure the international community into a Libyan-style military intervention, which they see as the only way of tilting the balance in their favour. On the ground, calls for a "no-fly-zone" – codeword for international military intervention – have become widespread; only weeks ago, they were unthinkable.
Should these dynamics intensify and the conflict morph into an armed, sectarian confrontation with heavy outside involvement, Syria's cohesion would be threatened. Regional instability could spread. Spill-over effects most likely would be felt in Lebanon, where sectarian conflict risks being reignited. But a Syrian Sunni insurgency also could affect confessionally-divided Iraq and neighbouring Jordan. A proxy war could intensify between Ankara and Damascus, which already has reactivated ties with Kurdish forces battling Turkey. In short, the impression of a standstill – in which predominantly peaceful protests are met by increasingly intensive repression – is misleading. Beneath the surface lie developments that should be worrisome to all.
Until recently at least, the regime appeared relatively comfortable with these trends. From the outset, it sought to portray the protest movement as an Islamist, sectarian and foreign-backed insurgency; anything that could bolster its narrative was welcome. Framing the struggle in such terms helped justify the president's decision, made in late July, to opt for a so-called "security solution" – i.e., all-out repression of all forms of dissent on the one hand and preservation of the fiction of "normalcy", "reform" and "dialogue" on the other. Since then, the regime has rejected any meaningful compromise, recovering a sense of self-confidence even as the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate.
The regime found some reasons for solace. First, the "security solution" bolstered the security services' cohesiveness, determination and loyalty; after months of internal disarray prompted by the leadership's confusing mix of symbolic concessions and hesitant repression, they finally understood what they were expected to do. Second, the massive campaign of arrests, indiscriminate killings and other scare tactics diminished the number of demonstrators while largely circumscribing the protest movement within the communal, geographic and socio-economic boundaries that best suit the regime – namely a provincial movement of the Sunni underclass. In turn, the regime has used this to keep significant segments of the upper- and middle-class, largest cities and minorities on board. Third, Damascus ensured that the interests of key allies, Iran and Hizbollah, became intimately intertwined with its own fate: insofar as they have blindly aligned themselves with the regime, they are certain to lose were it to fall. Finally, the leadership has witnessed the international community's divisions and impotence – whether motivated by fear of Islamism, suspicion of Western intervention or concern at Syria's ability to spread chaos throughout the region.
But the security solution cannot resolve the regime's most fundamental problems. It cannot address its economic predicament, which has reached alarming levels and which, in the absence of a political resolution, will only worsen as wave after wave of Western, and possibly international, sanctions are almost certainly unleashed. It cannot end the demonstrations, which invariably pick up wherever and whenever pressure relents. It cannot revive the regime's legitimacy which was based on Assad's personal reputation, a sense of communal coexistence, as well as the idea of resistance to Israel and U.S. hegemony. Instead, what support it enjoys today is almost entirely of a negative sort: fear of sectarian retribution, Islamism, foreig n interference, social upheaval or, more simply, anxiety about the unknown. Nor can the regime forever count on the resilience of its security forces. For the country's intense polarisation – between those who reject the regime's brutality and those who see it as the only path to salvation – and the distrust this engenders has contaminated all institutions, including the army. Faced with an increasing number of defectors willing to take up arms against them, the security services find themselves in greater need of military protection precisely at a time when regime distrust of the army is growing. Tellingly, the regime has not yet been able to retake Homs – something it almost certainly would have done if it could muster su fficient trusted troops to do so.
The regime is not alone in having reached an impasse. In the past eight months, the protest movement has failed to break out of the straightjacket into which it has been forced by the security services. The growing number of student protests over the last several days is remarkable precisely because they break with the image carefully and relatively successfully cultivated by the regime – that of an undereducated, thuggish and extremist protest movement. Still, the middle class in the largest city, Aleppo, as well as in Damascus has remained largely quiet; only in Homs have demonstrators convincingly bridged social and communal divides. Minorities have either openly sided with the regime (in some Christian areas), kept a relatively low profile (in the Kurdish-dominated northeast and the Druze town of Sweida), or been crushed into submission (in the Ismaeli town of Salamiya). There have been few significant defections from within the regime's technocratic ranks. Although several senior officials have been sidelined, no decisive cracks have emerged in the decision-making apparatus. Having rejected any dialogue with the regime so long as it resorts to violence – an understandable position given the level of repression – and having espoused ever more radical slogans (from toppling the regime at the beginning, to executing Assad now), the opposition had left itself with no alte rnative but to fight till the bitter and bloody end; the Arab League proposal perhaps now provides it with a small, but vital, margin for manouver.
Nor has the opposition succeeded in unifying its ranks or presenting a coherent program. Its most visible figures, whether in exile or at home, have shown insufficient leadership, unable to articulate a political platform that could provide either a basis for negotiations with the regime or some guarantee of continuity in the event of its collapse. Divided more often by petty personal rivalries than by deep substantive issues, the opposition's failure to present a realistic way forward has helped persuade many despairing protesters that their only hope lies in domestic armed struggle or outside intervention.
A fractured international community also has been forced to watch largely from the sidelines. In the Arab world, the regime has benefited so far from support from countries such as Lebanon (which cannot afford to alienate its neighbour); Algeria (whose rulers fear the spread of popular uprisings); or Iraq (whose Shiite leadership has opted for an essentially sectarian perspective on Syria's unrest). To date, efforts to pass a UN Security Council resolution have been resisted by, among others, Russia, China and India, who share an instinctive fear of Islamism, aversion to foreign interference in domestic affairs and distaste for the what they see as the West's self-serving interpretation of international principles. As a result, Europe and the U.S. have had little to offer beyond heightened rhetorical condemnation (inevitably undermined by their inconsistent approach to other issues, such as Bahrain or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and an array of economic sanctions whose political impact remains uncertain and whose economic legacy could undermine any future transition.
Syria's closest allies, Hizbollah and Iran, face their own perils. Their unconditional support for the regime was premised on appreciation for Syria's role within the so-called axis of resistance and belief that Assad would successfully manage the crisis. In order to justify Damascus' resort to extreme violence, they were compelled to embrace its version of a Sunni Islamist, foreign-backed insurgency seeking to tip the regional balance of powers. By the same token, they essentially dismissed the protesters' legitimate demands and obvious sufferings, casting much of Syrian society as the enemy. The net effect has been to severely damage their moral standing across the Arab world, undermine the notion of resistance, expose them to the very same accusation of double-standards they typically levy against the West – in their case by condemning in Syria the popular revolt they champion in Bahrain – and cast them in a purely sectarian light. Iran and Hizbollah already have paid a steep price. It will be steeper still should the Syrian regime's repression intensify and the conflict develop along ever-deepening sectarian lines.
There is good reason to doubt that anything will come out of the Arab League initiative. The opposition suspects a manoeuvre designed to gain time and thwart efforts at greater international involvement. It will be leery of providing the regime with any breathing space and eager to demonstrate the president's bad faith. Among outside actors, some predictably will want to rush to condemn the regime, others to exonerate it.
If only because the alternative is so bleak, however, every effort should be made to maximise the proposal's chances of success. It is crucial that President Assad sticks to his part of the agreement and rapidly implement its provisions, and crucial that the regime's remaining friends press him convincingly to do so. So too must the opposition find a way to contain its well-justified scepticism, condemn acts of violence against regime forces and put aside any precondition for negotiations save for the agreement's strict implementation. The international community, rather than follow Washington's lead – which unhelpfully greeted the announcement with a renewed call for Assad's immediate departure – should take a cautious approa ch and judge the regime based on its actions. But the converse also must hold, namely that Syria's violation of the agreement should be met by swift international condemnation, including by those who have proved most reluctant to date and including in the form of a UN Security Council resolution.
Should it come to that, many undoubtedly will push for such a resolution to impose sanctions. But not only would insistence on this step likely impede chances of swift passage, there also are serious questions regarding its efficacy. Sanctions hurt the regime, but they hurt what is left of the middle class even more; those in power typically find ways to circumvent them and render themselves indispensable providers of goods and services, thereby heightening society's dependency on the very forces the sanctions are intended to undermine. Rather than rush to enact new penalties, better to wait to see how those already in force play out. Above all else, the regime dreads further international isolation. That is one reas on why it so warmly greeted Russia's and China's veto at the UN and why it decided to accept the Arab League's proposal. If the regime reneges on its commitments, a consensus that lays the blame at its doorstep would be the worst possible outcome from its perspective – and both the most effective and achievable lever at the international community's disposal.