Getting Serious in Syria

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The Arab revolutionary wave of 2011 was slow to arrive in Syria. Public disobedience did not show its face until mid-March, a full month after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. When demonstrations did finally emerge, they focused on the grievances of Daraa, a middling-sized town near Syria’s Yarmuk River border with Jordan. The citizens of Daraa were outraged over state security service atrocities so heinous as to be out of character even for Syria. In early March, a group of 15 boys, aged ten to 15, imitated crowds in Tunisia and Egypt by spraying anti-regime graffiti on the walls of public buildings. Agents of the secret police working for General Atef Najeeb, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, detained the boys and tortured them by pulling out their fingernails. Angry citizens of Daraa took to the streets in protest. The regime reacted to the demonstration with lethal force. The Arab Spring had acquired “Syrian characteristics.”

The conflict between Daraa and Damascus soon came to symbolize the grievances of all disaffected Syrians against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Across the country, solidarity protests erupted in what soon became a weekly cycle. After Friday prayers, as worshipers flowed out of the mosques, demonstrations would erupt in many different cities at once. The authorities would respond with lethal force, sniping from rooftops and sweeping individual protestors off the streets and into its dungeons. On Saturdays, the funerals of martyrs would generate more protests and more killings by the authorities.

At the end of April, the regime attempted to break this cycle and reestablish its deterrent capability with a show of gruesome force. It laid siege to Daraa, cutting off electricity and water, conducting house-to-house searches and shooting anything that moved on the streets.[1]  It was during the siege that security forces tortured, murdered and partially dismembered a 13-year old boy named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, who almost instantaneously became a global media martyr. The city suffered greatly but did not back down. Nor was the rest of the country cowed. Protests continued unabated.

The contrast with Egypt was striking. In Cairo, protesters quickly paralyzed public life, and the military, for its part, refrained from firing on civilians. In a matter of days, foreign and domestic pressure forced President Mubarak to step down. In Syria, however, Assad managed to keep the biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, relatively calm by resorting to the selective killing of civilians in cold blood, some targeted but some seemingly random. Be that as it may, several provinces slowly slipped out of tight control. Hama, the fourth-largest city in the country, and Homs, the third-largest, displayed an unprecedented autonomy from Damascus.

By mid-July, at least 1,400 people had been killed and more than 10,000 were missing. These numbers are bound to grow. Though still in power, Bashar al-Assad had proven incapable of vanquishing the protestors—not, evidently, because he has been less ruthless than his father, but because Syrian society itself has changed. His regime is now locked into a grindingly slow process of irreversible decline.

A Most Peculiar Regime
What accounts for the “slow-motion” quality of the collapse of Assad’s rule? The answer begins with the fundamental character of the regime. During its four-decade life, outbreaks of domestic unrest have been few and far between. Prior to the Assad era, however, instability was the norm. From independence in 1945 until November 1970, when Bashar’s father Hafiz took power, Syria was a state plagued by chronic political unrest. In just one year, 1949, the country witnessed three separate military coups within an eight-month period. Egypt, by comparison, was tranquil. This difference arises from the fact that in Egypt the state and the society fit together comfortably as a cohesive unit. The Syrian state is not only young in historical terms (having been created in the aftermath of World War I), but it also sits atop a heterogeneous society characterized by deep horizontal fissures.

The rise of the House of Assad undeniably brought stability to Syria. However, this achievement, if that is the appropriate term, came at a high price. Nothing better exemplifies that price than the events of 1982, when the regime brutally confronted a Muslim Brotherhood-led insurgency centered on the city of Hama. In a successful bid to suppress the revolt, Hafiz al-Assad perpetrated one of the worst atrocities in modern Arab history. The military laid siege to the city and unleashed an artillery barrage that leveled an entire civilian quarter. The death toll is unknown, but estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000. Contemporaneous accounts describe the stench of rotting corpses wafting out of the rubble.[2] 

The Hama massacre highlights the most salient feature of Syrian political life: the mailed fist of the state. Prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was universally regarded as the most brutal dictator in the Arab world. He was that, but Hafiz al-Assad ran a close second—the difference between them reputedly being that while Saddam actually enjoyed torturing and murdering people, the elder Assad did similar deeds out of perceived necessity, without excess or flamboyance. Bashar al-Assad has continued his father’s approach, adding a veneer of forced geniality to what is otherwise the same basic deal. It is impossible to explain the longevity and stability of the Assad era without reference to the totality of the regime’s police state and its ability to smother all forms of independent political activity through continued use of violent repression.

However, as is the case in any successful police state, violence must be rationalized and routinized if it is to bring stability to a deeply divided society. In Syria, the Ba’ath Party provides this service. The Syrian political system, a single-party state, is something of an anachronism, a throwback to the heyday of the Cold War. The Ba’ath, like the East European communist parties of yesteryear, is the sole legitimate political organization in the country.

On paper, the Ba’ath is the vanguard of a populist pan-Arab movement, and, to be sure, Ba’athi values are not entirely irrelevant to the regime’s behavior. An extreme nationalism that stresses the unity of all Arabs and hostility to American imperialism and Zionism does have its true believers as well as its practical uses. It is the latter, however, that are trump. Ba’athi rhetoric serves, for example, to deflect attention from the fact that the ruling family and most of its closest associates are members of the Alawi religious community, which constitutes only 10-12 percent of the population.[3]  Historically, the community was despised by the Sunni Arab majority, which outnumbers it by a factor of at least five to one. The regime is perpetually vulnerable to the claim that it is a tool used by an unrepresentative “Shi’a minority” to dominate Sunnis. Ba’athi ideology allows the Assad family to disprove such claims by arguing that it is the staunchest representative of common “Arab” values and a fierce opponent of the recognized enemies of all Arabs.

Clearly, the Party’s primary function is to preserve the ruling family’s monopoly on political activity, and when ideology is not enough (and it rarely ever is enough), other means of control avail. Overlapping and ubiquitous security services enforce the Ba’ath Party’s authority. The capriciousness and venality of these services shape every sphere of public life—including business. In recent years, the regime, seeking to attract foreign investment, has trumpeted modest reforms designed to develop “the private sector.” Due to the absence of the rule of law, however, the term is essentially meaningless. Powerful barons whose status derives directly from their political connections dominate the economy.

Not coincidentally, these barons have an undisputed leader: Bashar al-Assad’s maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who, despite his lack of official government position, is one of the most feared men in Syria. Makhlouf owns a share of many of the significant “private” companies in the country. His ties to the coercive apparatus of the state mean that his share of any business, no matter how small on paper, is always a controlling interest.[4]  The Syrian public understands perfectly the methods that elevated this “tycoon” and knows that he is no mere private citizen. Demonstrators have repeatedly chanted slogans against him personally. Some offices of Syriatel, the telephone company he controls, have been torched. In an effort to blunt popular anger, Makhlouf announced in May that he was divesting his share of the company. His special status, however, means that he will continue to play a major role in Syrian business life, if not in Syriatel itself.

Makhlouf’s status as a bridge between Syria’s personalist politics and its clientalist economy personifies the state-cum-family enterprise. Besides Makhlouf and the President, four other family members constitute the inner core of the regime. The first is Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, who leads the Republican Guard, which has spearheaded the suppression of the demonstrations. The second most notable family member is Asef Shawkat, a career army officer and former chief of military intelligence. Shawkat is no doubt talented in his own right, but his rise to power has turned on his marriage to Bushra al-Assad, Bashar’s older sister and the third family member of note. She wields significant influence over her presidential brother, to whom Shawkat is also personally close. In the eyes of some, he serves as an éminence grise, with significant influence on the President.

Shawkat’s relations with Hafiz’s other two sons, however, have been stormy. When Basil al-Assad, Bashar’s older brother, learned of Shawkat’s love affair with Bushra, he opposed the courtship, which he saw as a crass power play by a wily social climber. When Basil died suddenly in a car crash in 1994, Shawkat and Bushra eloped. The eventual approval of their marriage from Hafiz al-Assad did not end Shawkat’s problems with the family, however. In 1999, Maher al-Assad reportedly shot Shawkat in the stomach in the midst of a heated argument. More than a decade after the gunplay, the two men are said to have repaired the rift between them.

The final personality of note is Bashar’s wife, Asma. She is the daughter of Fawaz al-Akhras, a Syrian doctor and businessman based in the United Kingdom. Raised in England, she briefly pursued a career in high finance. As first lady of Syria, she has sought to carve out a role modeled on that of Britain’s Princess Diana, or Jordan’s Queen Nur and Queen Rania. Beautiful, stylish and worldly, Asma sponsors charities and “civil society” organizations in an effort to depict the Syrian ruling family as everything that it is not: progressive, cosmopolitan and, importantly, non-sectarian (the al-Akhras family, from Homs, are Sunni).

Situated around the ruling family is an Alawi-dominated network—a loose but real grouping that constitutes the Alawi “deep state”, to borrow a phrase from the Turkish experience. The deep state gives Assad a solid power base that, for instance, Hosni Mubarak did not enjoy. In Egypt, when push came to shove, the top brass withdrew support from Mubarak to save the military-bureaucratic regime that succors and shields them from all effective external accountability. In Syria, however, the generals cannot offer up the ruler to the mob, because the military’s top ranks are permeated by family members. Second, the sectarian logic of Syrian politics dictates that, when Assad falls, the generals will go down with him. In fact, even Alawis who lack regime connections fear reprisals. Having noted well the sectarian score-settling that followed the fall of Saddam in Iraq, they fear an analogous scenario will play out in a post-Asad Syria.

Similar worries beset other significant groups. Taken together, the Arabic-speaking minorities (Alawites, Christians, Druze and Ismailis) constitute about 25 percent of the population. Through their fears of instability the regime will receive at least tacit support from a significant segment of the society. Asad understands this sectarian dynamic and cleverly plays on minority fears. Time and again, the regime has falsely claimed that armed “Wahhabis” have fired on the security services. While these Sunni terrorists are fictions, flesh and blood Alawi gangs known as “the Shabbiha” terrorize the cities of the western coast, where Sunnis live side by side with Alawis.[5] The Shabbiha are known to enjoy friends in high places. Several years ago, it came to light that one gang in Latakia was actually led by a cousin of Bashar, who was caught on tape, Kalashnikov in hand, robbing a bank. Though he went to jail for the crime, he reportedly managed “to escape”, presumably with the aid of powerful friends.

President Assad is adept at playing arsonist and fireman simultaneously. While his security services create an atmosphere of lawlessness, he whispers to domestic and foreign constituencies alike that the fall of the regime will doom “secularism” in Syria. He calculates that raising the specter of civil war will encourage minorities to run to the state for cover. For some time, the regime’s fanning of sectarian fires had not appeared to gain much traction. In mid-July, however, an episode of sectarian-motivated killings in Homs, a Sunni dominated city with a large Alawi minority, increased fears of sectarian conflict.[6]  Since then, wise to these attempts, residents in and elsewhere in the country, have been marching and chanting, for instance, “one, one, the Syrian people are one” in an attempt to take the sectarian edge of their conflict with the regime.

Meanwhile, Assad does all he can to persuade foreign governments to see his regime as the only entity that can prevent regional conflagration. He also selectively markets Syria’s role in a near-utopian fantasy that retains a headlock on certain Western officials—a final and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace—even as he does whatever is required to keep that prospect as far away from realization as possible. The regime exploited the tactic of spreading unrest (and bludgeoning any slim prospects for peace at the same time) on its borders in late spring and early summer, exporting the instability within to its neighbors in Turkey, Lebanon and, most egregiously, Israel (with the Nakba and Naksa day protests in the Golan).

A Dying Partnership
There is, of course, no evidence to support the regime’s claim that armed Sunni extremists are a significant cause of the unrest. Nevertheless, sectarianism is a powerful undercurrent in Syrian politics. Not surprisingly, Sunni protestors have on occasion depicted the regime as part of a Shi’a cabal. In Daraa in March protestors chanted: “No to Iran, no to Hizballah, we want a Muslim who fears Allah” The chant expresses the hope that a true Muslim—that is, a Sunni—will replace Assad, and that Syria will ally with Sunni powers. Crude sectarian expressions such as this have not been the norm, however; the protestors’ primary grievance is not the regime’s Alawi core but its failure to provide dignity, justice or jobs.

We often refer to the entire regime as “Alawi”, but this kind of political shorthand can be misleading. The Alawi deep state has always succeeded in co-opting significant numbers of Sunnis. The Alawi community is large enough to man the top levels of the government and to fill the ranks of the shock troops of the army and intelligence circles, but even in alliance with Syria’s other minority groups it is too small to populate the entire military, let alone the machinery of the state and the Ba’ath Party. The iron laws of demographics force the deep state to share power. It functions, therefore, as the leading element in what is essentially an Alawi-Sunni partnership, symbolized by the Bashar-Asma marriage. That partnership leaves Syria’s other minority groups nowhere to go except to the state for favors and protection.

When Hafiz al-Assad finally consolidated control in November 1970, he formed the original deep state by filling the top positions in government with loyal Alawi officers, men from his immediate cohort who had conspired with him to take over the government. In order to ensure that truly representative political organizations never formed from below, the deep state played the role of gatekeeper to power and authority. It created a class of dependent Sunni partners by parceling out patronage to men from lesser families, thus elevating their status while undermining that of the traditional Sunni elite. While Sunnis are thus found in the top ranks of the military and security services, they play the most prominent role in the economic life of the country and in the branches of the state that do not control the levers of hard power.[7] 

The Arab Spring threatens to destroy the Sunni-Alawi condominium. The current generation of Sunni elites is proving incapable of reaching down to the grass roots, not just in Daraa but also in big cities such as Hama and Homs. For the first time, an opposition has emerged that the regime can neither crush nor co-opt. The tools of social networking have enabled civil society for the first time in modern Syrian history essentially to out-organize the state—to act inside its decision cycle and thus remain invulnerable to state efforts at intimidation, disruption and sabotage. The opposition network has three salient traits: It emerged spontaneously from below; it is nationwide in scope; and its complexion is predominately Sunni. Taken together, these three traits constitute an existential threat to the regime. The new opposition network threatens the status of the Alawi deep state as the gatekeeper to the political and economic arena. Once that status is lost, the regime will collapse.

This will happen despite the fact that, at present at least, the opposition network is fragmented, leaderless and lacks a common ideology. These deficits have actually been a kind of advantage in the short-term, because the regime has found it difficult to identify the revolution’s leaders. However, there are rising demands for the opposition to better organize itself and articulate a program, and not the least of these demands come from anti-regime elements in exile. There is an ongoing “process of consolidation” amid that exiled opposition that led in mid-July to the formation of a National Salvation Council at a meeting in Istanbul, where some 350 activists represented a variety groups from liberal secularists to the Muslim Brotherhood. It remains a major challenge to ensure that this movement connects with the demands of the protestors on the ground in Syria, and that it remains credible with opposition figures within the country itself.

Assad is gambling that he can exploit the opposition’s in-country weaknesses and insider/exile tensions with tried-and-true methods: brute force and a policy of divide and rule. Instead of establishing “a true dialogue” as the U.S. Ambassador has demanded, Assad has behaved like a monarch receiving petitions from individual supplicants. He has met regularly with delegations from all across Syria in an effort to tacitly define the protests as a series of highly localized complaints, each one requiring its own unique solution.[8  Assad has also generated government-sponsored “opposition dialogues” such as a National Dialogue led by Vice President Faruq al-Shara’a, and even a meeting of independent figures in late June. Most true opposition leaders have either boycotted these meetings altogether, or treated them with healthy doses of skepticism. Clearly, they are an effort to simultaneously divide the opposition, preserve the status of the state as the sole arbiter of political life, and fob off the demands of foreign powers such as the United States and Turkey, which are both calling for dialogue.

By avoiding truly systemic solutions, Assad has protected the supreme status of the deep state, but his strategy has scored no major successes. Time and again, the opposition network has demonstrated the ability to call protestors out to the streets in many different cities simultaneously. Consequently, Assad now finds himself confronting what might be called the twin specters of rising Sunni power: the creeping independence of the provinces from Damascus and a crisis of morale among soldiers in the regular army.

It was precisely in order to halt the spread of provincial autonomy that the regime dispatched its shock troops to Daraa at the end of April. Despite the brutality of the operation, it subdued Daraa only temporarily. Moreover, it did so at a tremendous cost. The operation horrified a segment of Sunni opinion at home, while abroad it mobilized international opposition. Qatar and Turkey, two traditionally friendly states, both quickly distanced themselves from Assad. Worst of all from the regime’s perspective, the Daraa operation failed to reestablish the deterrent power of the state. Thus by mid-July the local authorities in Hama were exercising unprecedented autonomy. Al-Bukamal on the Syrian border also flaunted its independence—a particularly worrying development, given the tribal ties that link its inhabitants to their brethren in Iraq. All told, the cycle of worsening brutality and widening protest saw as many as 250 towns join the movement, while those on the streets came from ever broadening sectors of society. On July 15, for the first time, major protests broke out in Damascus. Flames are now licking at the palace gates.

The second specter Assad now confronts is the fracturing of the military along sectarian lines. After the Daraa operation, very credible reports of Sunni defections from the military came to light. They pointed to the fact that the Alawi deep state must refrain from forcing Sunni conscripts to carry out atrocities against their coreligionists. If regular units were to defect from the military in significant numbers and make common cause with the demonstrators, the balance of power between state and opposition would tip. In order to prevent a split in the military along sectarian lines, therefore, the regime had no choice but to rely primarily on its Alawi shock troops to suppress a nationwide rebellion. But these troops are limited in number; they cannot be everywhere at once. Nonetheless, the sheer magnitude of the demonstrations has increased the likelihood that more and more Sunni cities will develop ever-greater autonomy from the central authorities. The ground is slowly eroding from under the regime.

The Risks of Inaction
The Syrian status quo, whatever is left of it, is not sustainable. The transformation of Syrian politics will follow one of three different paths. The first of these is the scenario favored by Washington, which unwaveringly (if inexplicably) has supported a regime-led transition to democracy. Unfortunately, this scenario has zero chance of success. The Assad regime has no interest in instituting real reforms; any serious accommodation of the opposition would spell suicide for Bashar, the family and the deep state, which together form the central pillar of the regime.

Perhaps the regime will simply disintegrate, Ceaușescu-like. This second scenario, however, is equally unlikely. The entrenched nature of the deep state, the sectarian dynamics of Syrian politics, the fears of significant portions of the population of the unknown—all these factors and more will compel Assad to cling to power to the bitter end.

Consequently, we should expect the regime to collapse in ultra-slow motion, at least compared with how matters developed in Tunisia and Egypt, and even, in the opposite direction, in Bahrain. The uneasy balance between the protestors and the security services will continue. Cities such as Hama and Homs and tribal regions such as al-Bukamal will grow incrementally more autonomous. At some point or in some places, protestors might take up arms. (Indeed this may have already begun.) In that case, the conflict on the streets will begin to look more like a civil war than a contest between security services and rock-throwing protestors. As the Ba’athi regime loses strength and its residual power to intimidate, a power vacuum may well develop; indeed, it is already doing so. Such a vacuum will further destabilize not just the internal theater in Syria, but will have significant destabilizing implications for all of Syria’s neighbors.

Either way, regional powers will work to shape the battle on the ground to their advantage. The Turks, who are deeply concerned about the flow of refugees across their border, especially Kurds, now seem tempted to intervene directly, if only to establish a buffer zone where refugees could be sheltered on Syrian territory. Turkey has already taken an active role in hosting opposition conferences and providing a base for, among others, Muslim Brotherhood elements. For their part, the Iraqis will inevitably grow concerned about the creeping autonomy of the tribal regions on their border. Meanwhile, the Iranians will continue to support the regime, Tehran’s closest ally in the region and its gateway to its proxies Hizballah and Hamas. In sum, Syrian domestic politics will become enmeshed with regional politics, according to a pattern now familiar to us from Iraq and Lebanon.

The question for Washington, then, is this: How can the United States compress the timeline of collapse so as to minimize human suffering and ensure the speediest rise of a new order hospitable to the United States? To do so, Washington must first jettison the completely unsupportable pretense of a regime-led transition toward democratic reform. This policy only encourages Assad to think that he can ride out the protests. Instead, the United States should be working assiduously to convince Assad to go, and to go soon.

This task of persuasion should entail five steps:

  1. The United States must begin with a strong declaratory policy announcing that it is now working to build the best possible bridge to a post-Assad Syria.
  2. Washington should then convene a conference of interested powers, in conjunction with Turkey and France, to develop a Syrian “contact group” devoted to establishing a stable order and to preventing a power vacuum. Crucially, such a contact group should also seek to involve Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
  3. The United States must work with other key actors to help turn the Syrian opposition into the nucleus of a transition government. As the experience with the Libyan opposition forces has shown, engagement with the Syrian opposition movement would prove invaluable to increase its effectiveness and professionalize its efforts.
  4. The United States must promote defections from the Syrian security services with an eye both to convincing Assad to leave and to preserving the Syrian Armed Forces as a future national institution. In doing so, Washington must warn officers, down to the brigade level, that they are being monitored and that they will be held personally accountable for the atrocities that are committed under their command. (This should not be a bluff.)
  5. The contact group should take all available steps to starve the regime of cash and other resources, including taking a leadership role on preventing the regime from generating revenue from oil exports.

Taken together these steps may not stop the flow of blood immediately, but over the mid-term they can significantly reduce the number of needless deaths. They will also hasten the rate of defections from the regime, which will be crucial to reigning in the government crackdown and allowing a genuine process of transition to begin.

[1] For a detailed account of the siege of Daraa see “‘We’ve Never Seen Such Horror’: Crimes Against Humanity by Syrian Security Forces”, Human Rights Watch, June 1, 2011.

[2] John Kifner, “Syria Said to Raze Part of Rebel City” The New York Times, February 21, 1982.

[3] On the role of Alawites in the Syrian state, see Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle For Power in Syrian: Politics and Society Under Asad and the Ba’ath Party (I. B. Tauris, 1996).

[4] For a profile, see Uri Friedman, “Rami Makhlouf: The Man the Syrian Regime Is Distancing Itself From”, The Atlantic Wire, May 12, 2011.

[5] See Adnan al-Suwadi, “Al-Shabbiha”, Al-Arabiya, March 27, 2011; and Tony Badran, “Who Are the Shabbiha?” The Weekly Standard Blog, April 12, 2011.

[6] Liz Sly, “Sectarian Violence in Syria Raises Fears”, Washington Post, July 19, 2011.

[7] For a revealing analysis of the Asad regime see Shmuel Bar, “Bashar’s Syria: The Regime and its Strategic Worldview”, Herzliya Conference (2006).

[8] See for example “President Asad Receives a delegation . . . “, Al-Thawra, June 22, 2011.