While we have all been preoccupied with Egypt and its non-revolution, and the Hamas-PA terrorist reunion, Syria has been descending into civil war. Almost daily we read horror stories of Syrian troops firing into crowds of civilian protestors, tanks in the streets, massive arrests and jailing of dissidents and journalists, with unconfirmed reports of hundreds of people killed since the start of the rebellion.
Matters have descended to such a degree that even the inert EU has decided to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime.
The EU agreed on Friday to impose sanctions on Syria next week to step up pressure on the regime as it persisted with its violent crackdown on protesters, killing at least 16 during a “day of defiance”.
European countries will formally announce the sanctions on Monday, imposing asset freezes and travel restrictions on top Syrian officials involved in a seven-week crackdown that has killed more than 500 by some estimates.
The Americans went ahead and imposed sanctions already last week.
One wonders what is next for Syria? Will it turn into an Egyptian style revolution, with the leader being forced out and the military taking over? Will it turn into a form of democracy à la Tunisia? Or a full scale civil war as happened in Lebanon?
A very interesting article from Stratfor brings a lot of background and historical analysis to help us make sense of the Syrian crisis.
The past seven weeks of protests in nearly all corners of Syria have led many to believe that the Syrian regime is on its last legs. However, such assumptions ignore the critical factors that have sustained this regime for decades, the most critical of which is the fact that the regime is still presiding over a military that remains largely unified and committed to putting down the protests with force. Syria cannot be compared to Tunisia, where the army was able quickly to depose an unpopular leader; Libya, where the military rapidly reverted to the country’s east-west historical divide; or Egypt, where the military used the protests to resolve a succession crisis, all while preserving the regime. The Syrian military, as it stands today, is a direct reflection of hard-fought Alawite hegemony over the state.
The triumvirate managing the crackdowns on protesters consists of Bashar’s brother Maher; their brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat; and Ali Mamluk, the director of Syria’s Intelligence Directorate. Their strategy has been to use Christian and Druze troops and security personnel against Sunni protesters to create a wedge between the Sunnis and the country’s minority groups (Alawites, Druze, Christians), but this strategy also runs the risk of backfiring if sectarianism escalates to the point that the regime can no longer assimilate the broader Syrian community. President al Assad has also quietly called on retired Alawite generals to return to work with him as advisers to help ensure that they do not link up with the opposition.
Given Syria’s sectarian military dynamics, it is not surprising that significant military defections have not occurred during the current crisis. Smaller-scale defections of lower-ranking soldiers and some officers have been reported by activists in the southwest, where the unrest is most intense. These reports have not been verified, but even Syrian activist sources have admitted to STRATFOR that the defectors from the Syrian army’s 5th and 9th divisions are being put down.
A fledgling opposition movement calling itself the “National Initiative for Change” published a statement from Nicosia, Cyprus, appealing to Syrian Minister of Defense Ali Habib (an Alawite) and Army Chief of Staff Daoud Rajha (a Greek Orthodox Christian) to lead the process of political change in Syria, in an apparent attempt to spread the perception that the opposition is making headway in co-opting senior military members of the regime. Rajha replaced Habib as army chief of staff when the latter was relegated to the largely powerless political position of defense minister two years ago. In name, the president’s brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, is deputy army chief of staff, but in practice, he is the true chief of army staff.
The defections of Rajha and Habib, which remain unlikely at this point, would not necessarily represent a real break within the regime, but if large-scale defections within the military occur, it will be an extremely significant sign that the Alawites are fracturing and thus losing their grip over the armed forces. Without that control, the regime cannot survive. So far, this has not happened.
While the military and the al Assad clan are holding together, the insulation to the regime provided by the Baath party is starting to come into question. The Baath party is the main political vehicle through which the regime manages its patronage networks, though over the years the al Assad clan and the Alawite community have grown far more in stature than the wider concentric circle of the ruling party. In late April, some 230 Baath party members reportedly resigned from the party in protest. However, the development must also be viewed in context: These were a couple of hundred Baath party members out of a total membership of some 2 million in the country. Moreover, the defectors were concentrated in southern Syria around Daraa, the site of the most severe crackdowns. Though the defections within the Baath party have not risen to a significant level, it is easy to understand the pressure the al Assad regime is under to follow through with a promised reform to expand the political system, since political competition would undermine the Baath party monopoly and thus weaken one of the four legs of the regime.
As for the implications for Israel, here is Stratfor’s take:
Internally, Alawite unity and control over the military and Baath party loyalty are crucial to the al Assad regime’s staying power. Externally, the Syrian regime is greatly aided by the fact that the regional stakeholders — including Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran — by and large prefer to see the al Assads remain in power than deal with the likely destabilizing consequences of regime change.It is not a coincidence that Israel, with which Syria shares a strong and mutual antipathy, has been largely silent over the Syrian unrest. Already unnerved by what may be in store for Egypt’s political future, Israel has a deep fear of the unknown regarding the Syrians. How, for example, would a conservative Sunni government in Damascus conduct its foreign policy? The real virtue of the Syrian regime lies in its predictability: The al Assad government, highly conscious of its military inferiority to Israel, is far more interested in maintaining its hegemony in Lebanon than in picking fights with Israel. While the al Assad government is a significant patron to Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, among other groups it manages within its Islamist militant supply chain, its support for such groups is also to some extent negotiable, as illustrated most recently by the fruits of Turkey’s negotiations with Damascus in containing Palestinian militant activity and in Syria’s ongoing, albeit strained, negotiations with Saudi Arabia over keeping Hezbollah in check. Israel’s view of Syria is a classic example of the benefits of dealing with the devil you do know rather than the devil you don’t.
The biggest sticking point for each of these regional stakeholders is Syria’s alliance with Iran. The Iranian government has a core interest in maintaining a strong lever in the Levant with which to threaten Israel, and it needs a Syria that stands apart from the Sunni Arab consensus to do so. Though Syria derives a great deal of leverage from its relationship with Iran, Syrian-Iranian interests are not always aligned. In fact, the more confident Syria is at home and in Lebanon, the more likely its interests are to clash with Iran. Shiite politics aside, secular-Baathist Syria and Islamist Iran are not ideological allies nor are they true Shiite brethren — they came together and remain allied for mostly tactical purposes, to counter Sunni forces. In the near term at least, Syria will not be persuaded by Riyadh, Ankara or anyone else to sever ties with Iran in return for a boost in regional support, but it will keep itself open to negotiations. Meanwhile, holding the al Assads in place provides Syria’s neighbors with some assurance that ethno-sectarian tensions already on the rise in the wider region will not lead to the eruption of such fault lines in Turkey (concerned with Kurdish spillover) and Lebanon (a traditional proxy Sunni-Shiite battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia).
Regional disinterest in pushing for regime change in Syria could be seen even in the April 29 U.N. Human Rights Council meeting to condemn Syria. Bahrain and Jordan did not show up to vote, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt insisted on a watered-down resolution. Saudi Arabia has even quietly instructed the Arab League to avoid discussion of the situation in Syria in the next Arab League meeting, scheduled for mid-May.
Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has given indications that it is seeking out Sunni alternatives to the al Assad regime for the longer term and is quietly developing a relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. AKP does not have the influence currently to effect meaningful change within Syria, nor does it particularly want to at this time. The Turks remain far more concerned about Kurdish unrest and refugees spilling over into Turkey with just a few weeks remaining before national elections.
Meanwhile, the United States and its NATO allies are struggling to reconcile the humanitarian argument that led to the military intervention with Libya with the situation in Syria. The United States especially does not want to paint itself into a corner with rhetoric that could commit forces to yet another military intervention in the Islamic world — and in a much more complex and volatile part of the region than Libya — and is relying instead on policy actions like sanctions that it hopes exhibit sufficient anger at the crackdowns.
In short, the Syrian regime may be an irritant to many but not a large enough one to compel the regional stakeholders to devote their efforts toward regime change in Damascus.Read more: Making Sense of the Syrian Crisis | STRATFOR
Making Sense of the Syrian Crisis is republished with permission of STRATFOR.