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Collectively failing Syrian society

Peter Harling, Foreign Policy  |   24 Jan 2012

For months, neither the Syrian regime, the international community, nor the opposition in exile have offered much hope in a dangerously deteriorating crisis. Increasingly, they seem to be unintentionally conniving in bringing about a civil war although it will serve no one's interests, destabilize Syria for years, and suck in the rest of the region. Their enduring pursuit of maximalist demands may sabotage what chance still exists for a negotiated transition.

The regime's vision consists in cracking down decisively against residual pockets of foreign-backed trouble-makers, then opening up politically within sensible boundaries -- similar to Jordan's or Bahrain's promise of limited reforms. Outside players currently bent on its demise, it wagers, ultimately will realize it cannot be destroyed; already hesitant for lack of good options and fear of ensuing chaos, they will grudgingly move to softer forms of pressure and, in time, even resume engagement. The regime's sympathizers and allies are all too keen to believe that it is strong, that the reach of the protest movement is wildly exaggerated by hostile media, that the foreign conspiracy is both all-encompassing and impotent, and that Syrian society is so disease-ridden -- a hodgepodge of fundamentalists, thugs, and third party proxies -- that it cannot but deserve the security services' tough medicine.

This narrative is flawed in more ways than one. For ten months, the regime has been collapsing in slow-motion, and it is showing. Its political structures, weak at the outset, have eroded beyond repair; the executive has lost any ability it once had to implement policy and the ruling party is an empty shell. The security services remain largely cohesive and ready to fight, but in many places they increasingly resemble at best an occupying force cut off from society, at worst a collection of sectarian militias on a rampage. The military is fragmenting, slowly but surely. The regime's territorial control depended on the protest movement remaining largely peaceful. Now that an insurgency is spreading, it is losing its grip. Arguably, the regime has refrained from using much of the firepower at its disposal, for fear of tilting the balance decisively against it within the international community. It could easily muster enough troops to put down resistance in any specific area, but at the expense of letting things slip elsewhere in a losing game of whack-a-mole; other rebellious areas would go for broke, knowing their turn would soon come if the regime was allowed to deal with them sequentially. Meanwhile, the economy's collapse is accelerating. Because none of this is lost on a majority of Syrians, once spectacular demonstrations of loyalists have narrowed to the point where official footage prefers close-ups to aerial photography. The "silent majority" the regime claimed to have on its side is now angry and scared: it both blames the country's leadership for spelling disaster and distrusts the protest movement, exiled opposition, and outside world for offering no clear prospect for the future other than growing chaos. 

On a popular level, the picture also differs from what the regime, its sympathizers, and allies would like to believe. The protest movement, which to this day remains conspicuously absent from the official narrative, is remarkably broad-based, intuitively cohesive, and in many ways sophisticated. Until now, it has effectively contained the more thuggish, criminal, sectarian, and fundamentalist strands that clearly exist within society. In fact, the protest movement's better sides are the only bulwark against such demons, at a time when the regime's course of action -- exacerbating communal tensions as a divide-and-rule tactic, targeting non-violent activists, and compartmentalizing its territory while losing control within screened-off areas -- is making things worse by the day. Unlike the case of Libya, it took months of bullying, disruption, and despair for Syrians to call for international intervention (which they ordinarily would loath), to pick up arms on a large scale (an option the vast majority agreed should be kept as the last resort), and to allow a political struggle to give way insidiously to civil strife (as is occurring in some parts of central Syria). If chaos deepens further, criminals, foreign volunteers, and home-grown fundamentalists are bound to become more striking features of this crisis -- a self-fulfilling prophecy come true.

The conspiracy theory also has its limits. True, the protest movement may not have survived, let alone thrived, without a sympathetic -- and in some cases deeply biased and unprofessional -- international media, as well as considerable logistical support from abroad, notably from within an expansive and mobilized diaspora. But even taking such factors into account, realities on the ground don't come anywhere close to the regime's narrative. Bloodthirsty Islamist terrorists sponsored from abroad are hard to find in a sea of angry ordinary citizens motivated by local grievances, and above all the brutal, unaccountable behavior of the security services (which by now is all that a large proportion of Syrian society sees of the regime). Emerging armed groups complain bitterly about inadequate weapons and shortage of ammunition, suggesting for the time being a dearth of strategic depth. 

The international community, powerless and deeply divided, has so far not been acting decisively. The West, which initially hoped the regime would do a better job at managing the crisis -- and thus spare it from a risky adventure in a sensitive part of the world -- has come full circle: although the practicalities remain unclear, the consensus now favors regime-change, with dreams of regional change lurking in the background giving a hoped-for domino effect on Hezbollah in Lebanon and a besieged leadership in Iran. Russia appears concerned about heightened instability in the area at large, the prospect of further empowering Islamists, and the West's typically cavalier attempts to push its agenda under the guise of noble moral values.

The Arab League has been engaged constructively, sending observers that may have failed to solve the crisis but which have staved off the escalation in violence on all sides one could have expected in their absence. Unfortunately, its more assertive members are those with the least credibility to take the lead -- Gulf monarchies that united to put down popular protests in Bahrain tend to adopt a sectarian perspective on regional events, and have paid only lip service to reforms at home. Other Arab countries are essentially in disarray, bogged down by domestic tensions, fearful of more regional instability, and distrustful of the West, given its track record of making things worse, not better, in this part of the world. The result has been a slow-moving but determined effort to lock the regime into a set of constraints that could force it to recognize the reality of its domestic crisis and negotiate an exit, while fending off any risk of hands-on Western involvement. Thus the transition plan announced this week, involving a caretaker role for the Syrian vice-president, the establishment of a national unity government, the election of a constitutional committee, and reforming the security apparatus, offers a mechanism that can be built upon and consolidated. If support for a negotiated transition comes from all quarters, critical pressure will be brought to bear on a regime whose primary asset now consists in playing Russian support and Western brinkmanship off each other. 

Part of the problem has been the dismal performance of the opposition in exile. Its members, even as they repeatedly talk on satellite channels about the sufferings of their kin back home, have in fact spent the better part of their energy squabbling over personal rivalries, lobbying for international recognition, and debating a foreign intervention that -- whether it is desirable or not -- simply will not happen in the foreseeable future. Focused on following the mood on the Syrian street rather than leading the way forward, they have shut the door on any negotiated transition, decried the Arab League's initiative instead of suggesting ways to optimize it, and failed to articulate a credible, workable strategy. Even the more obvious political imperatives, such as offering the prospect of a reconciliation process with those who, although carrying out the repression have not ordered it, have run up against the opposition's preference for echoing the frustration felt by ordinary citizens after months of escalating regime violence. However, key to any resolution of the deep social divide that has emerged within Syria will be a firm but smooth process to overhaul the existing security apparatus, as the lessons of the Iraqi disaster make clear.

All sides have been incapable of agreeing on what would be a reasonable U.N. Security Council resolution: making clear it does not endorse foreign military intervention, both to reassure Russia and because within the current parameters of the conflict it is not in the cards anyway; calling all parties to cease fire; blaming the regime for bringing the country to the brink; holding it fully accountable for seeking a solution; demanding it implements the Arab League's transition plan; and insisting it respects peaceful protests under a reinforced observers mission, with the additional deployment of Arab monitors embedded within the security apparatus where required in the face of armed groups. The regime may choose to ignore what some would describe as a toothless resolution. In fact, what has enabled it to shun international pressure until now is the sense that key players like Russia and others condoned its approach, a decisive factor of self-confidence within its own ranks. A Security Council resolution is the one available lever that could be brought to bear on a Syrian leadership that feels sheltered by the prevailing divisions on the international scene, and would rather take the country down the road to civil war than negotiate in order to obtain what still can be achieved (not least guarantees for the Alawite community, a phased hand-over of power, and the assurance of institutional continuity) at the cost of giving up on the hope that hunkering down and making reforms that only satisfy its supporters somehow will enable it to stay in power.

It should come as no surprise that in the absence of any glimmer of hope, despair has been taking hold of Syrian society. It is already expressed in multiple forms, all of them disturbing, but things are poised to get worse. As more Syrians come to believe that their collective efforts are in vain, that the world has forsaken them, and that the regime can only be fought with its own methods, the nature of the struggle could be transformed into something more fragmented, narrow-minded, and brutal. Those who have given up on everything but God will be easy recruits for the Islamists. The logistical needs of armed groups will offer opportunities for whoever is willing to sustain them. Communal rifts may further deepen. Violence predictably will serve as a vehicle for the advancement of the more thuggish components within each community. The creative, responsible, and forward-looking activists within the protest movement could soon feel overpowered -- many already do. That feeling, combined with unrelenting pressure from the security services, is gradually pushing some to give up or even flee abroad.

Until now, the regime and a majority of its supporters, allies, critics, and foes appear to have been operating under the same assumption: that the deadly stalemate the crisis is locked in will endure a while longer, until the other side gives way. This could still be true, but within the current parameters, it is becoming increasingly improbable that the power structure will suddenly unravel, that it will succeed in regaining lost ground, or that its opponents will accommodate it in any way. If this impasse endures any longer, the struggle could quickly mutate into an open-ended civil war. Although the regime bears most of the responsibility for bringing the situation up to this point, the international community and exiled opposition have no excuse for moving it further along this terrifying path.

Peter Harling is Project Director for Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon with the International Crisis Group

Foreign Policy

 
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