Photo courtesy UNHCR (http://www.unhcr.org/50094bdc6.html, July 2012)
The full horror of what Syria could turn into if the escalation of violence continues has not yet become clear. The media, like many of us who study or observe the region, appear to be undecided as to what to infer from the latest events in the capital as events in Syria continues to surprise. There is no doubt that the assassination of senior Assad officials constitutes a major security breach for the regime. This could lead to a sharp increase in the number of senior defections or an all out massacre of civilians by the military as part of a last ditch attempt to rid the city of the rebels and maintain Damascus as a stronghold for the regime.
The takeover by the rebels of some of the border posts with Iraq and Turkey has also come as a surprise and points to the possibility that the rebels possess greater numbers and wherewithal than previously imagined. Despite a lack of serious artillery, they have managed to take on troops in Damascus and simultaneously in the outer regions of the country.
Three key questions need to be answered in relation to the future of Syria: (1) Is the six point plan dead or alive?; (2) How long has the regime got?; and (3) What will be the regional impact of a regime change in Damascus?
In the view of this author, the six-point plan, in its current form with UN observers should be considered dead. It was never adhered to properly in the first place and the UNSC vote demonstrated yesterday that China and Russia are committed to preventing any foreign interference in Syria regardless of the rising death toll. In consequence, of greater concern should be the type of brutal violence being demonstrated by both sides. According to Iraqi border guard witnesses, after commandeering the border post Abu Kamal, the victorious rebels cut arms and legs off the stationed military commander, and then immediately executed 22 of his troops. These type of kills forewarn the creation of a culture of brutal violence, as witnessed in Libya. It is also important to note that if Alawite attacks on Sunnis – such as the recent killings in Mazraat Al-Qubair – continue, there is risk of severe blowback against Alawites in both Syria and Lebanon. As a religious minority, dwarfed by the Sunni and Shi’a populations in the region, the balance of power is not in their favour. What these events do demonstrate is that it appears once civil war breaks out, the accompanying violence is going to be brutal irrespective of endogenous or exogenous influence. This is perhaps something China and Russia should consider when they are next offered a chance to revoke their vetoes on measures aimed at halting the violence.
The second question about the longevity of the regime relates to the first. If Assad truly feels his back is against the wall, and a UN solution would enable him to remain in power, would he take a get out of jail free card from the UN and stick to it? If so, what would this look like? International missions in states have varied in their success rates, but as Lise Morje Howard notes, they can and do succeed. The success of the UNIFIL mission in neighbouring Lebanon suggests that despite significant obstacles, if there is sufficient will, there is a way. As a former resident of Syria, I still believe the desire for peace and stability amongst the people remains strong, hence if there was any international appetite for this, a UN force might receive a good reception from people on the ground: one of the key factors in the success of a mission according to Howard. Comparisons with Iraq have abounded since the unrest began but perhaps we should think of Syria as more analogous with Iran. The idea of Syria has existed for hundreds of years. Despite several territorial amputations on behalf of the Persians, the Ottomans, and colonial powers France and Britain, Syrians retain a strong sense of identity as Syrians. They have always been aware of their religious differences, but nonetheless the idea of Syria is not simply a post-colonial construction. Hence they are more likely to support measures that will enable the retention of the state as it is, and the prevention of it splintering off into different sectarian enclaves. But the longer the violence is perpetrated, the harder this solution will be to implement. How long it is before Assad is cognizant of the fact he is already doomed remains anyone’s guess at this stage.
The third question asks what the regional fall out might be if Assad is forcibly removed from power. Well this would be heavily dependent on who removed him. If it ended up in a Libya style murder then it is highly likely a proxy war would ensue between Iran and friends (Russia, China, Iraq, Hizbullah) vs. Saudi Arabia and friends (US, UK, Qatar, Turkey & various Gulf States) for the spoils of what is left of Syria. Whilst there is a possibility of a Sunni “win” in Damascus, which currently the US appears to be tacitly approving, we should not assume that a Sunni regime would be pro-US. There is a sense amongst scholars in the region that the Arab Spring will generate a period of increased Islamisation, to last a generation or more, and it is possible the populations that vote Islamists into power may not be desirous of a pro-US foreign policy. This should give cause for warning to all states to question the sanity of a strategy of funding proxies in Syria currently when no one can be sure of the future intentions or ideology of these actors.
Iran and Hizbullah will work hard to convince any future leaders of Syria that it is in their interests to work alongside the axis rather than oppose it. The Syrian crisis is exerting a great deal of pressure on the Iran-Hizbullah relationship. There is speculation that the Syria problem is so unnerving to Iran and Hizbullah that Iran is already quietly talking to elements of the opposition movement in Syria. Hedging bets on both sides has, after all, worked as a means of building asymmetrical power against Israel, and there is ultimately no reason for Iranian hegemony to remain a Shi’a only club. Hamas was operating in tandem with it quite comfortably until recently. But Hamas’s withdrawal in light of the Syrian crisis has demonstrated that immunity to the effects of public opinion in the region may be a thing of the past. This will unnerve Iran in particular in light of it’s own domestic dissent in the past few years.
Iran’s role in the Arab Spring has in many ways been very muted. After some bold declarations that the Egyptian revolution mirrored its own, which failed to convince anyone in the region, it has largely been silent on the issue. Not least because it has its own threats to contend with in the shape of the threat of an Israeli attack, but also because the Syrian uprising puts it in a very difficult rhetorical position. Iranian foreign policy has always been in favour of supporting the people in the Arab street against their own corrupt regimes. This has become rather more difficult in light of the essential nature of its relationship with the Assad government in Syria. However, the refusal of some Western powers to accept Iran’s demand that it be involved in resolving the Syria situation may not be the most helpful strategy. Iran is one of the largest powers in the region and as such demands a seat at the top table. The consistent refusal to acknowledge this fact only pushes Iran into the use of more mischievous, asymmetric tactics that contribute to further destabilisation of the region.
Sunni rule in Damascus could undoubtedly break Hizbullah and Iran’s power in the region – for Hizbullah this would mean a break in their crucial weapons supply chain. Mounting anti-Syrian opinion in the region threatens the legitimacy of Hizbullah in its own backyard and leads to questions as to whether it will be able to provide unqualified support for Iran.
As the pivotal axis state, Syria is fighting for its political life, but in all probability Assad will fail in his endeavours. It is obvious but worth restating – the peace and stability in the region hinges upon whether and how the political transition in Syria is managed and by whom.
Vanessa Newby, Human Protection Hub