An unpublished article I wrote back in mid-December.
A Litany of Missteps
The last time I saw our family in Syria, we shared a parting dinner in Sit al-Sham, a small restaurant in a residential neighborhood in central Damascus. It was late August and the atrocities of the Syrian regime’s Ramadan crackdowns were well underway. The dinner was lachrymose. My mother-in-law was distressed that her son was leaving the country. My sister-in-law was nine months pregnant, just days from giving birth to the family’s first grandchild, an event I was certain to miss.
By late summer, the security situation in many of the capital’s suburbs bordered on untenable. The journey from Damascus proper to my in-law’s ramshackle home in one of the most defiant of Damascus’s largely impoverished suburbs, was a cumbersome one marked by numerous security checkpoints. Over the course of the preceding two months, the protest movement had slowly consumed my in-law’s neighborhood. Security forces operated around the day and night, entering homes in search of suspected dissidents, carrying out arrests, monitoring the comings and goings of all the area’s residents. A parlous area well before the uprising began, it was not long before its residents took up arms to fight against security forces. By June, my mother-in-law spent most nights in the throes of sleep interrupted by street fights and the exchange of gunfire between beleaguered protestors and security forces.
My husband and I lived miles away on the other side of the city. Our home stood on the side of Mount Qassioun in a conservative, middle-class neighborhood. Until April 2011, the only disruption to the solitude of our street was the sound of children’s voices as they came and went from the seven schools that surrounded us. In the mornings we listened to the rhythms of their alphabet songs. Evenings heralded the quiet whir of domestic life: cooking and shared meals, evening news, the occasional party.
A month before the revolution began, we knew from contacts to expect protests come mid-March. Like most others in Syria, I was incredulous of the rumors. President Bashar al-Assad was wildly popular, his cult finely-tuned to such a degree as to preclude so much as even the imaginings of a different political reality, never mind the audacity to take any such alternate vision to the streets to demand for its realization.
In the early months of the revolution we lived in constant fear. The Syrian regime’s first response to the unrest was reactionary, violent. President Assad, lacking the incisive, strategic mind of his father before him - and likely too his seemingly unbridled ascendency over the execution of state matters, responded as if the country remained suspended in time nearly three decades earlier, uninfluenced by the awe-inspiring, brazen revolutions that had then taken hold of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and unimpeded by the hyper-connectivity of the world today, wherein mobile phones, satellite news, and the internet, collectively render the erasure of evidence of state-inflicted crimes nearly impossible.
The regime appeared to believe that the violent suppression of Syria’s revolutionaries would effectively snuff out the protest movement before it took hold of the country. When the demonstrations subsequently swept across Syria, leaving only the very centers of Damascus and Aleppo comparatively calm, the regime then set about reconfiguring the language it used to house its oppression and brutality.
Though Bashar equated Syrian revolutionaries with ‘terrorists’ that compromised Syria’s security, he went through the motions of lifting the emergency law, forming a new government, and promulgating a new political parties law. The word ‘dialogue’ was thrown about as a potential solution to Syria’s woes, though the use of violence and terror tactics by the state’s security apparatuses continued unadulterated. By early June, thousands had been arrested, over 1,300 people had been killed, and the economy was at its knees.
No amount of official veneer could obscure the reality that the regime was committing grave crimes against ordinary Syrians - crimes that exceeded even those of the flesh, by demoralizing, humiliating, and looking with unmitigated disdain upon all those demanding their fundamental rights.
By July, most people in Syria knew someone who had been threatened, arrested, abused, or killed. The massacres in Hama the day before Ramadan were the final indication that the regime had closed the door on any semblance of reason or humanity. By the time I sat down to that dinner with our family in late August, security forces had shot and killed unarmed protestors in our neighborhood on Mount Qassioun.
Narratives in Black and White
With a few honorable exceptions, foreign journalists reporting on the revolution in Syria generally come at it from one of two perspectives - that of the journalist on a furtive mission to uncover ‘the truth’ of the situation in a matter of hours - or in the best case scenario, a handful of weeks, or, that of the state-sanctioned reporter on something akin to an official visit to the country wherein he or she is escorted by security forces to a number of locations and presented a comparatively palatable snapshot of the situation. It is hard to blame the press for its shortcomings with regard to Syria - foreign journalists are rarely granted visas to the country, and the pervasiveness of the secret police and security forces render the work of those inside laborious at best, and perilous at worst. The outcome of all of the above tends to be reportage in black and white.
For their part, diplomats and commentators often have not been much better better at shedding light on the situation. Headlines with the words civil war, time bomb, and sectarian, are more persuasive than those that allude to dynamics not readily conveyed to the average person reading a recap of a senate hearing or scanning an op-ed. Syria’s vital role in the region’s broader political dynamics and stability likewise ensures that foreign officials tend only to emphasize information of direct assistance to their broader geostrategic aims.
The dearth of measured reportage, commentary, and official statements on the situation in Syria is deeply troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that a generally ill-informed public is nevertheless responsible for holding elected officials to task - a duty that cannot be performed well in the absence of accurate information.
For these reasons, a number of key issues with regard to the situation in Syria must be addressed: the Syrian opposition - its aims, divisions, and militant aspects; international intervention - the creation of a buffer zone and the risks associated with backing elements of the opposition, and; issues pertaining to the unintended consequences of any such form of foreign intervention in Syria.
The two most recognized wings of the opposition are the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Committee (NCC). The former was launched in Istanbul, Turkey on 23 August and is headed by Burhan Ghalioun. Its membership is largely comprised of Syrian exiles, intellectual reformists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Kurdish activists. It has the backing of a number of activist groups inside Syria, including one of the key groups behind the organization of protests, the Local Coordination Committees. However, it does not effectively represent Syria’s Alawi, Christian, and Druze minority groups.
The SNC conditionally supports some forms of international intervention in Syria and is opposed to carrying out dialogue with the regime. It has also forged a tentative alliance with the armed element of the opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well as the opposition’s newest group, the National Alliance of Forces, Coordinators and Councils of the Syrian Revolution; Al-Leeqa (National Alliance), headed by former Syrian ambassador to Sweden, Mohammed Bessam Imadi. The National Alliance claims to formally represent the underground wings of the opposition.
The NCC is based in Syria and headed by Hussein Abdel Azim. It consists of a number of leftist political parties, as well as Kurdish and youth groups, all of which organize from within Syria. Its membership stems from a narrower base than that of the SNC, supports conditional dialogue with the regime, and maintains that the international response to the crisis should be limited to diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions.
For its part, the actual ranks, means, and command structure of the FSA remain largely unknown. Under the leadership of Col. Riad al-Asaad, the FSA claims to have some 22 battalions of soldiers allegedly numbering between 10,000 and 20,000. Most analysts believe that its numbers are significantly lower and that its command structure is largely nonexistent, with its credited attacks against political and armed forces facilities around the country, for example, likely carried out by members only loosely affiliated with the group. What is clear is that its ranks are largely comprised Sunni defectors from the Syrian armed forces equipped only with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. The stated aims of the FSA are to protect unarmed civilians from Syrian armed forces whilst weakening the regime by inspiring broad-scale defections.
At present, the SNC has undoubtedly won the battle for attention from the international media. Its press statements suggest that the group is forming a unified strategy among its own ranks, whilst also consolidating its position among opposition members and activists inside Syria. However, there are a number of compelling reasons to question the veracity of its claims, as well as many of those made by opposition and activist groups more broadly.
With particular regard to the SNC, despite months of pressure from Syrian and foreign stakeholders to reach out to more of the country’s crucial minority groups, the SNC has thus far failed to do so. This is a critical issue; in the absence of effectively addressing the legitimate concerns of Syrian minorities, many will not see reason to set aside rational fears of an unknown future to join the ranks of the opposition. The same failure to reach out to minorities also does little to counter sectarianism among the opposition where indeed it does exist. Additionally, there remains a disconnect between the SNC and the numerous activist organizations operating inside Syria. While the SNC held its first plenary assembly in Tunisia in mid-December with the explicit intent of solidifying its policy goals and consolidating its position among the opposition, these issues will take months, not days or weeks, to tackle effectively.
Regarding the opposition more broadly, there are numerous dissident and activist groups operating inside Syria with no ties to the SNC nor the NCC. There are also countless activists working in-country without any affiliation to any formal opposition group. These activists are powerful players in protest dynamics in their respective areas and cannot be discounted.
The opposition groups, including the SNC, the NCC, and the FSA, all have a vital interest in conveying to local and foreign stakeholders that the Syrian government and its armed forces are splintering as various government backers find continued support for the regime unsustainable. The efficacy of all of these opposition groups hinges in part on their ability to broaden their membership - which in turn will stem from compelling government supporters to switch allegiances, and the thousands who remain unconvinced by either side, to take up their cause. Though little evidence exists in support of opposition press releases pertaining to fractures within the government (e.g. the recent report from opposition officials in the UK that Syrian Deputy Defense Minister Asef Shawkat had been shot and killed by former General Security Directorate Chief, Gen. Ali Mamlouk), such reports collectively function to paint skewed conceptions of the revolution’s dynamics.
The same groups also have an interest in convincing local and foreign stakeholders that a post-Assad Syria will not result in the level of chaos, human suffering, and killing seen in post-2003 Iraq. To that end, the FSA is careful to assert that it operates primarily for the purposes of defending the unarmed, and Ghalioun, for example, has noted on a number of occasions that the SNC would seek to preserve Syria’s state structures and the social integrity of the country following the fall of the government.
Given the weaknesses of all the Syrian opposition and activists groups at present, however, it is critical to avoid even the suggestion that the opposition could transform into something of a monolithic force in the near future. This discounts the reality of its divisions and the significance, both symbolically and practically, of debates between its members. To that end, it is also unrealistic to expect Syrian dissidents and activists in and outside of the country to develop, agree upon, and advance a plan for the overthrow of the regime and the subsequent political reconstruction of Syria, in a matter of months. Syrians have spent some four decades under the depoliticization program of the Baath Party, unable to organize or openly discuss the political future of the country. For those inside Syria, the onset of the revolution has shattered the barrier of fear keeping many from expressing their views - but it has done nothing to mitigate the reality that those attempting to organize against the government, do so under threat of violence. Even in the best of circumstances, such issues would take months and years to sort out.
All this is to say nothing of the millions who remain either supportive of the current government, or unpersuaded by either side. With regard to the former, the violence, instability, and economic woes unleashed by the revolution have undoubtedly destroyed a significant portion of President al-Assad’s support base. What is left, however, is a core group of backers still numbering in the millions, some of whom border on fanatical. If they have not shifted allegiances at this point, it is reasonable to assume most will never do so.
Finally, there are countless others who withhold their support for both the government and the opposition. For the opposition to succeed, it will have to address the interests, concerns, and uncomfortable reality of each of these groups - at present as well as in a post-Assad Syria.
As the crimes of the regime intensify, so too does debate with regard to the need for and possibility of international intervention. While key regional and international players have ruled out the possibility of intervention in Syria since the start of the revolution, history demonstrates that such declarations should never be taken at face value. The UK, the US, France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, for example, all have serious stakes in seeing regime change in Damascus. The growing number of cries for foreign intervention for the protection of Syrian civilians, particularly from exiled members of the opposition, fuels anger and sympathy from the domestic constituencies of foreign officials, therein opening up a space for presumed changes in policy.
The concept of a “buffer zone” has been thrown around quite extensively in recent weeks with members of the SNC and the FSA increasingly calling for a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution to pave the way for its establishment. The concept has also received varying levels of interest from both Turkey and France, though it should be noted that the former passed up an opportunity to push for such an area back in mid-June when an estimated 10,000 Syrian refugees from Jisr al-Shughour fled across its border.
In theory, a buffer zone would allow for the following: 1) the creation of a safe zone in which Syrian civilians could take refuge from security forces; 2) the distribution of food and medical aid to civilians by international forces; 3) the establishment of a base from which the opposition could operate, and; 4) the boosting of the opposition’s morale which is an essential component of efforts to expand its membership.
The most plausible place for such a zone to be established would be in Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province; the area is known to be strongly pro-opposition, is in close proximity to both the Mediterranean coast and the Turkish border, and has the natural advantage of resting in a valley that stretches southward into Syria and northward in the direction of Turkey, whilst also being surrounded by mountainous terrain to both its east and west. This means that any ground offensive launched by the regime would be limited in its approach, which indeed is why Syrian armed forces were compelled to use airpower to assault the region last June.
However, while the humanitarian merits of a buffer zone are oft repeated, it should be understood that any such effort would first require international forces to launch a preemptive air campaign to neutralize the government’s air defense systems. This would require bombing key military installations in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Lattakia - all densely populated areas. Indeed, the vast majority of Syrian armed forces assets are located in close proximity to urban settings and whilst many harken back to NATO’s recent air campaign in Libya, which indeed succeeded in allowing Libyan rebels to gain a needed foothold to defeat Ghaddafi, Syria is by no means comparable to Libya.
To that end, there are a number of data points worth bearing in mind: the total populations of Syria and Libya are 22.5 million and 6.5 million, respectively; the population densities of Syria and Libya are 110 per sq km and 4 per sq km, respectively; the active armed forces of Syria and Libya are 295,000 and 76,000, respectively, and; the reserve armed forces of Syria and Libya amount to 314,000 and 40,000, respectively. Indeed, the bombing required to neutralize Syrian military assets for the purposes of establishing a buffer zone would likely result in casualties commensurate with or in excess of those already incurred by Syrian civilians and security forces since the start of the revolution.
Of course, the same issues must be factored into any international move to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, yet another type of international intervention intermittently called for by members of the opposition. Given the highly limited use of air power by Syrian armed forces against civilians, however, the benefits of such a campaign remain unclear. Regardless, the establishment of a no-fly zone constitutes aggressive military action which would result in unavoidably high casualties.
While some argue that the UNSC will not pass a resolution on Syria that would pave the legal path necessary to launch foreign intervention, such assertions are equally misguided. Indeed, a resolution merely criticizing the Assad regime could be sufficient (e.g. the US, UK, French, and Turkish-led Operation Provide Comfort, later followed by Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch, all carried out in Iraq in 1991). If Russia and China do indeed continue to play obstructionist roles at the UNSC, there is still the “United for Peace” option through the UN General Assembly. This option exists precisely for such circumstances wherein there is a deadlock in the UNSC and has been employed in the past to secure the way for military intervention (e.g. the 1950 Acheson Plan which allowed for the use of military force in Korea). Finally, there is Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows for the invocation of self-defense as a legal justification for a military response to a crisis. In the case of Syria, there would have to be clear evidence that the country’s crisis posed a grave threat to stability and security of the region, among much else. The most plausible state to make such a claim would be Turkey, which is already playing host to both Syrian refugees and members of the FSA - which allegedly carry out intermittent cross-border attacks on Syrian armed forces. The Turkish embassy and consulates inside Syria have already come under attack, as have Turkish civilians inside Syria.
There is likewise the issue of foreign governments channeling monetary support and weapons into Syria in support of the revolution. Though more subtle in nature, this approach is also fraught with risks, included among them the possibilities that such efforts could: 1) provide the resources and means necessary to drive the country into full-blown civil war; 2) fortify insurgent forces operating independently from the opposition; 3) back armed elements of the opposition with sectarian leanings, and; 4) fortify elements of the opposition not broadly representative of the Syrian people, therein undermining the very aims of the revolution itself.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
By virtue of the country’s arguable role as the linchpin of the Middle East, the primary driver of international intervention in Syria will not be compassion for the Syrian people, nor will it be concern for their best interests. Regime change in Damascus deals a harsh blow to Iran and Hezbollah and to state what should be obvious, whilst the media will speak of the crimes in Syria at a heart-wrenching pitch, foreign officials will respond to international outrage with coordinated efforts to advance their respective geostrategic interests. This will likely involve backing a manifestation of the opposition, most probably the SNC, that foreign governments see as most able to advance their own agendas. Of course, this would not come as a surprise. By way of caution, however, a number of additional issues should be considered.
First, disunity between members of the opposition would make for a messy execution and aftermath of international intervention or assistance of the opposition. At present, the leading element of the opposition, the SNC, tackles key issues with regard to consolidating its ranks and constructing a plan for the country’s political future with varying levels of ineptitude. The SNC, as well as the FSA, are also seen by some to be courting the west as well as Turkey, which for many inside Syria seriously undermines the organizations’ credibility, whilst also providing fodder for the regime’s (at present, outlandish) claim that the opposition is indeed just the hand of outside forces.
Second, providing weapons and resources to the opposition before it has firmly taken minorities into its ranks and developed a credible plan for the protection of their rights in the future, would undoubtedly drive sectarian tensions. The most organized elements of the opposition have yet to effectively reach out to the country’s increasingly fearful minorities. This combined with the regime’s menacing efforts to plant the seeds of sectarianism as it responds to the revolution, has only served to fuel anxieties. Underlying this assertion is the troublesome assumption that foreign governments are indeed entitled and informed enough to decide which elements of the opposition to back. Further, the elements of the opposition that present the best face to the outside world, are by no means guaranteed to be accurate representatives of the Syrian people.
Third, while a number of analysts have stated that Syrian security and armed forces form a ‘hollow’ vessel that will crumble under the weight of a collapsing regime, any such notion borders on farcical. As stated above, active members of the Syrian armed forces total around 295,000. 175,000 of those are conscripts with varying levels of training and commitment. However, the army also includes a number of highly trained and capable units, including the Republican Guard Division and the 4th Mechanized Division, totaling in number between 25,000 and 35,000, and functioning under the command of Maher al-Assad, brother of President Assad. Further, there are an additional 100,000 paramilitary forces linked directly to the ruling Baath Party. There is also the internal security apparatus which includes police forces linked to Syrian Military Intelligence, the National Security Bureau, the Political Security Directorate, Air Force Intelligence, and finally the General Intelligence Directorate. The latter division alone is comprised of some 25,000 men and is directly linked to the highest levels of the government. Finally, there are the Shabbiha - members of the notorious civilian militia who total in number around 10,000.
Military analysts have noted that the command structure and overall discipline of the Syrian armed forces are lacking. With regard to the ability of the armed forces to carry out coherent and adaptable operations against an invading force, this is undoubtedly true. However, recent events demonstrate high levels of coordination and cooperation between members of the security and military forces. To that end, for the regime to succeed in systematically detaining and torturing thousands of civilians through coordinated efforts between such forces - many of whom appear proud of their efforts and indeed willing to document both their commitment and pleasure whilst carrying them out - it is reasonable to assume that it has maintained and will continue to maintain a firm hold over those who carry out its directives and those who support it. These same individuals do not have a bright future in a post-Assad Syria and few will be eager to throw their support behind an opposition seeking to usher in this reality. This in turn suggests that protracted conflict will be the outcome of international intervention (in most any form) in Syria - just as it has been the outcome of the revolution itself.
Fourth - and critically, civil wars tend always to last longer and cause more human and material destruction than anticipated. This would most certainly be the case in Syria for the three reasons stated above. Further, any such conflict in Syria is naturally positioned to evolve into a proxy war between regional and international powers. This issue has been written about quite extensively elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that the maneuverings and actions of Iran, Lebanon, Hamas, Hezbollah, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the US and the EU, Russia, and China, are inherently fraught with the possibility of setting in motion a series of events that could dismantle any remaining semblance of security or stability in the region.
Paying Heed to the Struggle
The dynamics of the Syrian revolution and the regime’s efforts to suppress it do not lend themselves to simple narratives. Any efforts to reduce them as such creates both the space and the incentive for outside forces to intervene in a crisis already fraught with the potential of becoming a devastating, protracted and possibly interstate conflict.
At the core of the Syrian revolution is a struggle for basic rights, for freedom, and for life free from humiliation and degradation at the hands of the state. Thus far, well over 5,000 people have died in this struggle, while thousands of others have suffered under detention and torture. While the pressure will mount on the international community to intervene on behalf of the Syrian people, it is important to recall that any such foreign powers have no true credibility in the struggle to bring respect for human rights and democracy to Syria. Indeed, the Baath Party itself assumed its position at the helm of the country through a series of misguided efforts by the US government to bring democracy to Syria beginning in 1947. This bit of history is lost on few inside Syria.
While elements of the opposition might succeed in winning the propaganda war overseas, if such success comes at the expense of efforts to understand and effectively represent and protect the actual interests and concerns of ordinary Syrians, it would serve as a profound injustice to the revolution.
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