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Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VII): The Syrian Regime’s Slow-Motion Suicide
Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VII): The Syrian Regime’s Slow-Motion Suicide
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria
After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria

Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VII): The Syrian Regime’s Slow-Motion Suicide

Even in its attempts to survive at all costs, the Syrian regime appears to be digging its own grave.

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Executive Summary

Desperate to survive at all costs, Syria’s regime appears to be digging its grave. It did not have to be so. The protest movement is strong and getting stronger but yet to reach critical mass. Unlike toppled Arab leaders, President Bashar Assad enjoyed some genuine popularity. Many Syrians dread chaos and their nation’s fragmentation. But whatever opportunity the regime once possessed is being jeopardised by its actions. Brutal repression has overshadowed belated, half-hearted reform suggestions; Bashar has squandered credibility; his regime has lost much of the legitimacy derived from its foreign policy. The international community, largely from fear of the alternative to the status quo, waits and watches, eschewing for now direct involvement. That is the right policy, as there is little to gain and much to lose from a more interventionist approach, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The Syrian people have proved remarkably resistant to sectarian or divisive tendencies, defying regime prophecies of confessional strife and Islamisation. That does not guarantee a stable, democratic future. But is a good start that deserves recognition and support.

Taken by surprise by the outbreak of unrest, the regime was lucky that protesters initially were unable to press their advantage. That gave the authorities time to regroup and put in place a multi-faceted response: stoking fear, especially among minorities; portraying demonstrators as foreign agents and armed Islamists; pledging limited reforms. Most of all, though, was brutal repression.

The violence that has ensued is clouded in some mystery. Crude propaganda from the regime and its policy of banning outside reporters has ensured this. Protesters claim they are entirely peaceful, but that assertion is hard to reconcile with witness testimony and with the vicious murder of several security officers. More plausibly, criminal networks, some armed Islamist groups, elements supported from outside and some demonstrators acting in self defence have taken up arms. But that is a marginal piece of the story. The vast majority of casualties have been peaceful protesters, and the vast majority of the violence has been perpetrated by the security services.

The regime had a purpose. By sowing fear of instability, it sought to check the extent of popular mobilisation and deter the regime’s less committed detractors. But while it appears to have had the desired impact on some Syrians, the balance sheet has been overwhelmingly negative from the authorities’ standpoint. The security services’ brutal and often erratic performance has created more problems than it has solved, as violence almost certainly has been the primary reason behind the protest movement’s growth and radicalisation.

As the crisis deepened, the regime gradually recognised the necessity of reform. Playing catch-up with protester demands, it always lagged one if not several steps behind, proposing measures that might have had some resonance if suggested earlier but fell on deaf ears by the time they were unveiled. This was particularly true of Bashar’s most recent (20 June 2011) speech. His suggestions of far-reaching constitutional reforms, including the end of Baath party rule, encapsulated much of what the protest movement, at its inception, had dreamed. By then, however, demonstrators had turned to something else. It is not regime reform they are pursuing. It is regime change. What is more, by giving a relatively free hand to security forces, the regime has become increasingly dependent on and indebted to its more hardline elements. This has made it far less likely that it ultimately will carry out what it has proposed; even assuming it truly wishes to.

Officials argue that many Syrians still see things differently, that they are wary of the protest movement, suspecting it is a Trojan horse for Islamists and that the fall of the regime would mean sectarian civil war. They have a point. Largely due to regime scare tactics – but also to some of the violence against security forces – the country has become more polarised. A growing number want to see the end of the regime; many still cling to it as better than an uncertain alternative, particularly in Damascus. The middle ground has been shrinking.

The result has been an apparent stalemate. Protesters gain ground but have yet to cross the crucial threshold that requires enlisting the capital. The regime scores some points by rallying its supporters, but the crisis of confidence with much of the population and loss of legitimacy is almost surely too deep to be overcome. But it would be wrong to bet on the status quo enduring indefinitely. Economic conditions are worsening; should they reach breaking point – a not unimaginable scenario by any means – the regime could well collapse. Predominantly Allawite security forces are overworked, underpaid and increasingly worried. Should they conclude that they ought to protect what still can be salvaged – their own villages – rather than try to defend what increasingly looks doomed – the existing power structure – their defection also would precipitate the end of the regime.

Under the circumstances, is there anything the international community can usefully do? Many commentators in the U.S. and Europe in particular believe so and are clamouring for a more muscular response. In truth, options are limited. Military intervention is highly unlikely; it also would be unquestionably disastrous. It could unleash the very sectarian civil war the international community wishes to avoid, provoke further instability in an already unstable neighbourhood and be a gift to a regime that repeatedly has depicted the uprising as the work of foreign conspirators. Sanctions against regime officials can be of use, though this instrument almost has been exhausted; going further and targeting economic sectors that would hurt ordinary Syrians would backfire and risk a repeat of the unfortunate Iraqi precedent of the 1990s.

International condemnation is valuable insofar as it keeps the spotlight on – and potentially deters – human rights violations. In this respect the visits by Western ambassadors to Hama, where the prospect of major violence threatens, were welcome. But there are limits to what such steps can accomplish. To do what some are calling for (denounce the regime as illegitimate, insist that Bashar step down) are feel-good options that would change little. Ultimately, what matters is the judgment of the Syrian people; while many clearly wish to topple the regime, others have yet to reach that conclusion. A premature determination by the international community potentially could be viewed by those Syrians as undue interference in their affairs.

The world’s cautious attitude has been a source of deep frustration and even anger for the protesters. That is entirely understandable, yet such caution might well be a blessing in disguise. The regime is unlikely to respond to international pressures, regardless of their provenance. Ultimately, the burden lies with the protesters to counter the regime’s divisive tactics, reassure fellow citizens – and in particular members of minority groups – who remain worried about a successor regime, and build a political platform capable of rallying broad public support. Already their ability to transcend sectarian divides has confounded many observers. More importantly, it has given the lie to a regime that has made a business out of preying on fears of a chaotic or Islamist alternative to its own brutal reign.

Damascus/Brussels, 13 July 2011


In this file photo released by Syria's opposition-run Aleppo Media Centre (AMC) on 19 February 2013, Syrians inspect destruction following an apparent surface-to-surface missile strike on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. ALEPPO MEDIA CENTRE / AFP

After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria

15 March marks the Syrian uprising’s tenth anniversary. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Syria expert Dareen Khalifa says that with a political solution out of reach, consolidating the existing ceasefires and alleviating human suffering is the best possible way forward for now.

What does the conflict in Syria look like on the ground?

The sides to the conflict are locked in an uneasy standoff that has brought the country a measure of calm, but fighting could rapidly reignite and trigger international instability. The turning point in the past year came when a Russian-Turkish ceasefire announced on 5 March 2020 halted a year-long Syrian regime onslaught on Idlib in the north west. This paused most fighting on the war’s last active front. Turkey expanded its military presence in Idlib, securing the truce. Thus, the area became the latest example of de facto ceasefires around the country.

But the possibility of renewed hostilities is real. The status quo is fragile and the parties to the ceasefires breach them on a daily basis. The Idlib ceasefire left unresolved core disagreements on the area’s future and that of the rebels, including Idlib’s dominant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate that is UN-sanctioned and considered a terrorist organisation by Russia and others. The March 2020 agreement between Russia and Turkey calls on both sides to “eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by [the UN Security Council]”. Moscow, which wants regime control over Idlib restored, has cited HTS’s UN designation when supporting regime attacks on the area, and has indicated that the ceasefire is a temporary arrangement. In the north east, a small U.S. military presence provides the only buffer between the local population and renewed active conflict: Turkey is adamantly opposed to local rule by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish paramilitary group that leads the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  While the U.S. has not acted on statements during the Trump administration that it will withdraw its troops from Syria, this may not be enough to prevent Ankara from launching a new offensive against the YPG.

Has Bashar al-Assad effectively won the war?

Assad is still in power and Syrian rebels are now confined to pockets of northern Syria.

Over half the population has been displaced with no prospects for return in the foreseeable future.

In reality, though, the conflict has no winners. Syria has been torn apart. Over half the population has been displaced with no prospects for return in the foreseeable future, while the UN stopped counting casualties five years ago, when already more than 400,000 people had reportedly been killed. The humanitarian situation is dire, with an estimated eleven million people inside the country in need of assistance; the World Food Program has warned of a growing threat of famine.

The Assad government controls some 70 per cent of the country, including its major cities, and has the support of Russia and Iran. But it has lost control over large swathes of territory in the north that contain most of the country’s natural resources. The government is a pariah in the West, has few friends in the Middle East, and is still battling a dangerous Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency in the centre of the country.

Assad’s goal of retaking all of Syria appears far-fetched. The country is currently divided into four distinct zones of influence, each backed or protected by a foreign power. Russia and Iran stand behind Assad, while U.S. and Turkish troops hold positions in various parts of the north.  Assad is effectively running up against strong foreign opponents who, at least thus far, have suggested they are invested in stopping any further military advance.

Ten years of war and Western sanctions have also severely depleted the Syrian government’s revenues and devastated the economy. Some of the biggest blows came between 2012 and 2014, when the regime lost access to most of the country’s natural and agricultural resources, in particular oil, gas and wheat, which are produced in the north east, now controlled by the SDF. As a result of the war, more than a third of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged. Both the regime and its Russian allies obliterated entire urban centres as part of a war strategy to violently subdue opposition-held areas. The U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS likewise decimated towns and villages, including the city of Raqqa. At the end of 2017, reconstruction costs reached an estimated $250 billion. Few countries appear willing or able to invest significantly in reconstruction; European governments that could are withholding support until and unless there is a genuine political transition.

Ten years on, what is driving the regime, the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel today?

The Assad government aims to restore its control over all of Syria, but without sufficient military support it is forced to pursue the more limited goal of tightening its grip on rapidly shrinking resources still within its reach. It typically does so by extorting money from businessmen, monopolising dollar transactions, appropriating land and providing a legal avenue for purchasing an exemption from military service, among other methods.

The Assad government aims to restore its control over all of Syria, but without sufficient military support it is forced to pursue the more limited goal of tightening its grip on rapidly shrinking resources still within its reach.

For Russia, Syria remains one of the few global theatres where Western states actively seek its cooperation, making the conflict central to its pursuit of a multipolar geopolitical order in which it can be a key player. Russia has achieved its main near-term political and military objectives in Syria, including preventing the collapse of an important regional partner. For Iran, Syria is a centrepiece of its regional strategy as a territorial link to its most important non-state ally, Hizbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, and a potential launching pad against Israel, which it portrays as deterrence.

For the U.S., remaining in Syria denies these three adversaries significant strategic gains, allows Washington to protect its local allies while fighting ISIS remnants in north east Syria, and would be a key component of any strategy to negotiate a better situation for the population in SDF-controlled areas.

For its part, Turkey sees the situations in north west and north east Syria as distinct security threats. With nearly four million Syrian refugees already in Turkey and popular resentment rising, Ankara wants to prevent further regime advances in Idlib that could send many thousands of new refugees into Turkey and for now appears determined to do so. In north east Syria, Turkey sees the YPG, the SDF’s backbone, as an integral part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged insurgency in south east Turkey since 1984, a conflict in which over 40,000 people have been killed.

And finally, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes against suspected Iran-linked targets in Syria with the goal of curtailing Tehran’s ability to use Syria as a transit and production zone for advanced weapons, such as guided missiles, for use by Hizbollah. It will continue to do so as long as it sees this threat.

Is the U.S. still a key player in Syria?

The U.S. is far from the most important player in Syria. That said, it maintains some influence through its military presence in north east Syria, its ability to impose additional sanctions on the regime or remove existing ones, and its de facto control, along with European allies, over any potential significant flow of reconstruction funds.

While this influence is insufficient to elicit a change in leadership in Damascus, or alter the balance of power significantly, the U.S. role in north east Syria has been crucial to preventing a violent free-for-all that could involve the regime, the Russian military, pro-Iran militias, the SDF and Turkey, and by keeping a lid on ISIS’s ability to return.

Are sanctions an effective tool to achieve Western objectives in Syria?

Western governments imposed sanctions on Syria to force the regime to change its behaviour, especially to halt attacks on civilians. To date, these sanctions have not achieved this goal. Additional sanctions in and of themselves are unlikely to fare better.

Some close observers point to an uptick of anti-government demonstrations in loyalist areas as a sign that the economic crisis may destabilise Assad’s rule. This seems unlikely. While sanctions may cause an increase in popular discontent by hastening an economic meltdown, today’s power dynamics do not allow for a popular uprising or insurgency that would threaten the regime in any major way. While Western states insist on a meaningful change in the regime’s behaviour toward its own population as a condition for lifting sanctions, they dropped their insistence that Assad must go many years ago. (They still refer to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015, which stipulates the goal of establishing “an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers” when mentioning conditions for lifting sanctions, though few people believe regime change is in any way realistic and Russian officials also often cite that resolution.)

Sanctions and other measures that are meant to penalise repressive rulers usually wind up hurting ordinary people the most.

Sanctions and other measures that are meant to penalise repressive rulers usually wind up hurting ordinary people the most. Western states should be more specific regarding what types of behavioural change they expect from Damascus and how to measure this, and indicate how they will reciprocate if the regime complies. Apart from this, it is vital to avert a further collapse of living conditions inside Syria or in neighbouring countries. Western governments should therefore consider increasing aid provided to the suffering population where possible, and continue to clearly communicate and implement humanitarian exemptions to economic and financial sanctions. 

What could a political resolution to the overall war look like?

Steps toward a nationwide negotiated solution to the conflict, such as the UN-sponsored constitutional committee discussions in Geneva, have yielded few results and are unlikely to achieve more in the near future. Russia and Western countries have divergent approaches to the process. Moscow sees the committee’s establishment in and of itself as a substantive concession from Damascus, for which the latter should be rewarded, for example in the form of increased Western assistance to areas under government control, enhanced Western reconstruction support or a lifting of sanctions. From their side, the UN, U.S. and other Western actors have welcomed the committee’s work only as a gate-opener to the implementation of the other elements that Resolution 2254 lays out toward a political transition, including a nationwide ceasefire.

For as long as the political deadlock continues and a comprehensive settlement remains out of reach, the best way forward may be to consolidate the ceasefires and, more generally, the status quo, and use the opportunity to help alleviate the human tragedy that is continuing to unfold. Over time this may help pave the way for more substantive political talks over Syria’s future.