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Perpetual Recalculation: Getting Syria Wrong Two Years On

[Compass. Image from Wikimedia Commons] [Compass. Image from Wikimedia Commons]

If I had a dollar for every time someone wrote about the “End Game” in Syria during the past eighteen months . . . .

Nearly two years into the Syrian uprising, analysts find themselves scrambling for potential scenarios. On the ground, most Syrians are more concerned about their personal safety at this point than they are about much else. The metrics seem to change constantly, causing political actors, constituencies, and observers alike to recalculate. Is it that the Syrian case is incomprehensible? Or is it that many rushed to judgment before considering the full spectrum of possibilities and contingencies associated with the Syrian terrain—political, social, economic, regional, global, and ideological? We are all implicated to various degrees in both getting Syria wrong and in recalculating.

In early March 2011, a few weeks before the Syrian uprising was underway, I wrote a short piece in Carnegie’s Arab Reform Bulletin (“Why Syria is Unlikely to be Next . . . For Now”), advising observers “not to hold their breath” for the fall of the Syrian regime. Though I do not pretend to have gotten Syria completely right, I highlighted a few factors that merit reiteration, and for which I was considered off-point by regime supporters and detractors alike (I shall not cite at this point). Those factors included the heterogeneity of Syrian society, which would undermine collective action among the opposition; the cohesion of the Syrian regime that would prevent Tunisia-style and Egypt-style scenarios of a quick-president’s-exit-as-solution; the thicker state-society relations in Syria that would prevent a Libya-style social isolation of the top leadership; and both the importance of Syria’s regional anti-imperialist stance which strengthens the regime externally, and its ultimate irrelevance to potential internal protest. 

Admittedly, I hedged my analytical bets by asserting that a mass uprising is unlikely to be automatic or ad hoc, “barring an extraordinary event such as an excessively violent regime reaction to a demonstration or other incident,” which would change the calculus of individuals.  The brutal and senseless, though patently customary, reaction of the regime to the children who wrote anti-regime slogans on the walls of their school in Der`a elicited such a change in calculus, and brought protesters to the streets despite the risks involved (one almost had to be nearly insane to protest the regime in Syrian before March 2011). The continuing violent and indiscriminate crushing of the protests from the early moments guaranteed the spreading of the protests to non-metropolitan cities at first, and opened the door for a myriad anti-regime external actors to finally do their bidding in Syria. Since then, events in, and analysis on, Syria resembled Bill Muray’s film, Groundhog Day, except with blood and misery.

All this calls for pause as one produces claims about the Syrian uprising. Any talk of an “end game” or claims that include binaries and clear scenarios reflect a misunderstanding of the conflict. By the same token, narratives that purify the “revolution” or reduce the conflict solely to conspiracy are simply out of touch with realities on the ground. The better route flows from the more mundane factors, with attention to domestic historical legacies, state-society relations, and regional/international jockeying for position.

It Is not Just About Syria

It is no longer a puzzle that the Syrian uprising quickly became a lot more than the Syrian uprising. It is enmeshed in the contradictions and conflicts of the region, and in the subtle but real international power plays. Today, the Syrian uprising encompasses, and engages, a number of conflicts and issues that have deep regional and some international import. It engages the Arab-Israeli conflict; the question of resistance to imperialism generally; the question of Hizballah (a topic unto itself); the power balancing struggle between Iran, Syria, and Hizballah on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries; the tension between Sunnis and Shi`is (nearly always instrumentally exacerbated by political actors); and, of late, the Syrian uprising with its Islamist dimension(s) is mixing with other regional developments to bring the questions of regional Islamism into the calculus of various actors.

Notably, it is also a conflict that international actors are paying attention to and partaking in to various degrees, even if in stop-and-go modes. These would include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Suffice it to say that most of these countries are primarily, often exclusively, interested in the implications of the outcome to their interests in the region and beyond.  The import of these dimensions is that so many powerful actors have a stake in the conflict, and as things develop internally, nearly everyone adjusts their position, which in turn complicates further the domestic terrain. Hence, if one is a bit confused by the developments in/on Syria, it means they are paying attention.

First Order of Discussion

The first order of discussion is to reject certain pretenses that are advanced by various parties to the conflict, along with their supporters. For instance, we cannot take seriously that the Syrian regime is actually looking for a political solution that involves popular will, nor its claim that the raison d'être of the uprising from the start is external. By the same token, we cannot take seriously that the United States is interested in the well being of the Syrian people or democracy in the region. The list of pretenses is quite long, and there is no sense of surveying all of it so long as one proceeds without such patently unwarranted assumptions. For without rejecting such pretenses, no serious discussion about possibilities and potential exits/solutions can ensue. This point might be self-evident, but worth asserting considering the plethora of reports and analyses that proceed from these starting points. They have been going nowhere, and most have been getting Syria wrong, for two years.

The Regime That Will Not Go Away

Despite recent analytical trends to the contrary, there is little doubt that time is not on the regime’s side. Whatever the assessment of the situation on the battlefield, there are some hard truths about the depth of this conflict that cannot be ignored after two years of killing and deterioration. The opposition, with all its fragments and factions (exceeding 200 at this point), and the Syrian people, whatever the distribution of their allegiances, are not going away. The regime, as it stands today, is going away. Its capacity and authority as a state to govern (the entirety of) Syria has not only diminished, but withered, and irreversibly so in the long run. The question is how, when, and under what conditions will the current state or status of the regime transform or dissipate. This does not mean that as a regime, it is weak, or that it will fall next month. In fact, the past ten weeks have seen an increase in its chances for survival for a bit longer.

Despite all the noise about defections and internal schisms, the Syrian regime remains remarkably coherent within its strongholds and capable of commanding a medium-term war with ever-increasing brutality, if not effectiveness. Both the lines of authority and the incentive for collective action are clear and present. It is a ship that sinks or floats all at once, and nearly all regime strongmen know it. The reasons vary. Though sectarian logic is a significant aspect of the explanation, it is not the only driving logic, as many would like to believe, nor was it so historically. In fact, minoritarianism, secularism, fear of Islamism, anti-imperialism, a legacy of regime invincibility, the pure obsession with  power, regional instability, and catastrophe (notably in Iraq and Lebanon) all played a role in empowering the regime historically, if only by advancing the “lesser evil” argument in compelling ways. Most importantly, the institutions that make up the Syrian state have not had sufficient autonomy to mount any internal serious challenge to the regime leadership. 

Starting shortly before 1970, Hafez al-Asad was keen on building a tight-knit leadership and institutional structure with built-in safeguards against potentially threatening developments. These include efforts, arrangements, and planing to prevent the following: (a) institutional autonomy of various state agencies, (b) the development of alternative power centers, and (c) the accumulation of significant power by any social force, including those connected to the state (labor before 1986, then business thereafter), and (d) the prevention of the transformation of economic wealth into political power. Bashar al-Asad thus inherited a state in 2000 that was both fierce (vis-à-vis society) and malleable (from above). However, it certainly was not as “patrimonial” as many analysts assumed, especially prior to the death of Asad senior. But there was always an institutional caveat.

Together, the top leadership and the various agencies and coercive apparatuses that make up the state were strong. However, in the words of the courageous and long-time outspoken dissident `Aref Dalila, without the endorsement of the top leadership, nearly all other strongmen within the regime, along with the institutions they ostensibly command, were rather ineffectual--especially in terms of posing a threat to the regime from within. Contrary to simplistic claims about this formula being a sectarian one, one must trace how Asad senior weaved and manipulated group, class, regional, communal, and national interests throughout the first two decades of his rule. This state of affairs was further consolidated after the brief stint in 1983/4 when Hafiz al-Asad’s brother, Rif`at, had designed and attempted a palace coup when his older brother was bed-ridden. 

Even security services strongmen were replaceable—usually by their assistants—by design. Until they were removed, retired, or replaced, however, they wielded significant power. Thus, the conferring of legitimacy by the top leadership (usually the President) became the key ingredient in explaining the power of initiative that regime strongmen retained and exercised. Absent the blessing of the president, various state agencies lacked both autonomy and initiative. So long as the preferences of the top leadership and other regime strongmen converged, they were both powerful; once such preferences diverge, regime strongmen become much more vulnerable, and thus replaceable.

Hence, as the crisis developed during the past two years, it was inconceivable that a palace or internal coup à la Egypt or Tunisia would be launched. Moreover the payoffs for such maneuvers for potential coup initiators were unclear, or, in most cases, irrational, considering the dynamics of the conflict, the legacy discussed above, and public opinion vis-à-vis other power contenders within the regime. The core elite seems to be more entrenched as the uprising has become bloodier and more brutal.

This state of affairs is likely to remain the case until the very end, or right before that very last point. The word “end” here needs to be taken with a grain of salt because the fall of the regime as regime might open the door to a more explicit militia-based civil war whereby regime supporters and remnants of the coercive apparatuses form a significant part. Thus, one should not conflate the “fall” of the regime with the end of the conflict, as internal factionalism within the opposition is likely to produce power struggles with or without the Ba`thist stronghold.

The Battlefield

The seesaw we witness in the media and beyond regarding regime and/or opposition gains has led many an observer or reporter to register pre-mature victories and/or make fantastic claims, invariably regarding an impending opposition triumph. The most credible reporting has debunked the exaggerated claims of opposition gains during the past eight months. To say a lot more than that is to take readers/listeners on a fairytale ride. At least since late summer 2012, the most strategic territorial advances by the opposition have been limited, with some exceptions regarding army bases, infrastructural sites, and provincial airports, including of late. 

However, Damascus, Homs, and Hama have been under regime control for the most part, notwithstanding recent attempts by the rebels to retake parts of Homs. Even in Aleppo, where the opposition has been trying to entrench itself in one half of the city, their fate is not yet stable. In fact, the Aleppo experience of many residents has affected public opinion negatively regarding the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups, largely because they have not been able to replace government services and a modicum of security. 

The rural areas contiguous to Damascus are continuously up in flames but with little significant advances by either side. Damascus, touted as the final battle for months now, is for the most part under the regime’s control today. Certain strategic parts of Damascus  are firmly under regime control. This is likely to remain so in the short run, but not necessarily much longer after that, especially as the regime’s air power is depleted and the opposition’s weaponry grows more sophisticated. Still, a compromised regime presence in Damascus is the beginning of a long battle, the outcome of which will be qualitatively decisive. However, contingencies abound, and I fear that saying too much is descending into pure speculation in the absence of valid information and indices. 

Nonetheless, with time, Islamist and/or al-Qa`idah-type groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham are not only gaining more fearless adherents, but they are also becoming increasingly well trained and disciplined. However, such developments constitute a double-edged sword: the growing military power of such groups unintentionally augments the regime’s political power as regional and international actors take pause in response to apparent opposition radicalization. In contrast to the amorphous Free Syrian Army (the FS who?), such groups have an authoritative leadership structure, clearer lines of command and control, and an ideology to boot. Watching the battlefield in Syria today means to take into account these two dynamics: Regime-opposition generally, and various developments/segmentation/harmonization/divisiveness within the opposition.

In any case, pegging one’s view and prognosis on advances and retreats here and there has been a tremendous source of irresponsible reporting and analysis. When we zoom out figuratively, the view becomes clearer: the battlefield has been marked mainly by entrenchment rather than fundamental gains for any side for months. To say a lot more than that, or to dwell on the discussion of a `Alawi enclave in northwest Syria after the anticipated fall of Damascus, or to speak of a north-south split is premature.

The Opposition

The fragmentation of the opposition has highlighted the contrast between the power of the regime and the weakness of the opposition with both its external and internal dimensions. This fact, coupled with both early manipulative support from external actors and the continuing brutality of the regime, pushed the opposition to the right, and created a vacuum of desperation that was filled by patently exclusionary extremists that now constitute the spearhead of the military opposition, if not its core. It also opened the door for external meddling. This rather obscurantist strand of the opposition is causing more than a little confusion and trepidation among various local, regional, and international actors. Increasingly, recent incidents reveal a growing tension between such groups and what is called the FSA. Notable, the FSA, to the extent it can be considered a corporate body, saw its fortunes decline steadily in the latter part of 2012. The lack of a local and central FSA authority and the ascendance of militant Islamist factions with deep regional roots began to shift the balance at least in term of organization coherence towards non FSA factions. This also revealed the rather soft and ad-hoc development of the FSA prior to its gradual disintegration as a central force to reckon with. 

Since the external opposition does not seem to have significant influence inside Syria, it matters less at the moment whether and to what extent it is supported by powerful regional and international actors. Excessive support for it can backfire considering its limited influence inside Syria, and little support is frowned upon as a sign of empathy and what not. In reality, the locus of the conflict remains local, and the local terrain is very much of a black box that is exacerbated by poor and/or misleading media reporting. Yet some continue to place undue influence and weight on external groups, coalitions, and leadership. 

Tracing and discussing the politics of the external opposition yields limited returns. Whether it is the beleaguered and exceptionally dependent Syrian National Council (SNC) or the relatively new GCC-sponsored Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), their relevance today to the conflict’s trajectory has been decidedly eclipsed by the battle on the ground in Syria and, ostensibly, by the discussions in the corridors of big powers elsewhere. Yet, the latter coalition ought not be dismissed—as many of us rightly did with the SNC early on—especially in relation to future scenarios in which it might play a significant role in balancing the power of the internal victors should they be of the radical variety.

Finally, an important issue that receives short shrift nearly everywhere (except inside Syria) is the continuing marginalization of the non-militant component of the Syrian uprising, which bodes ill for post-uprising scenarios. Though all such groups continue to oppose the regime, the ugliness of the uprising and the behavior of some of the opposition groups are reducing the momentum of the opposition in some areas in favor of stasis. The more significant point here is that this marginalization of the civil component of the uprising reveals the extent to which the question of real and democratic change in Syria is deprioritized by all players involved—namely, regional and international players on all sides. I am afraid this article is also giving short shrift to such opposition, largely because much of what can be written about it from outside Syria is limited to what is reported from the field--and that is relatively lacking.

Syrian Society: Hovering on the Brink

No matter how closely one follows the news on Syria, it is difficult to get a three-dimension picture of how people inside Syria are faring without some connection to those  living there. Those of us who have family and friends in Syria know too well the extent to which this conflict has taken its toll on its inhabitants, over and beyond the politics involved. Nothing better describes the state of ordinary Syrians than the word exhaustion. Whether via blogs, inside reports, radio interviews/calls, or direct testimonies, it is unmistakable how far Syrians have come in recognizing the implications of the complexity of the situation. This had the effect of reducing both expectations and fervor among large swaths of the population. Most pro-regime supporters are less rabid today, and most proponents of the uprising, inside and outside Syria, have become less naïve about the “revolution,” even if adamant about forging ahead. 

Most non-Islamist rebels willfully postpone an “internal” discussion or critique of their exclusionary partners in the “revolution” until after the regime’s fall. Syria’s non- and anti-Islamists are tabling this task for now, much like the secularists (a mixed and contentious category) who sided with Islamist Muhammad Mursi against the pro-Mubarak candidate Ahmad Shafiq in Egypt’s presidential elections only to fight him thereafter. Except the fight in Egypt was, and still is, orders or magnitude more orderly than that of Syria. I argue that it will also be so in the future.

More structurally, the fault lines remain largely unchanged. Minoritarian groups are overwhelmingly opposed to the opposition, but are joined by some influential upper middle class urban Sunnis, whether or not they are connected directly to the regime. Many in Syria continue to see this conflict as the rise of the marginalized against the politically and economically prominent groups and classes, a stance that augments the regime’s fortunes in the metropolitan cities to the extent that such contrast is exacerbated by disorder and radicalization of the opposition on more than the class count. This view puts disadvantaged minoritarian groups, including `Alawis, in a lose-lose situation, for they, as a community, have for the most part neither benefited from the old political-economic arrangements nor are they likely to benefit from the imminent one.

Conversely, as the flames of the sectarian dimensions of the conflict continue to be fanned by both regime and opposition, most Sunnis find themselves firmly lodged within the ranks of the opposition, but with varying degrees of support for the various emerging factions as discussed above. It is important to caution against taking such divisions as evidence that this is a purely sectarian conflict. Though such claims are carrying more credence based on developments on the ground, they are still quite reductionist and eliminate other dimensions of the conflict that are expressly political, social, regional (internally so), and economic. Nonetheless, the sectarian card has been tremendously useful for both camps in mobilizing their constituencies and enhancing their scare tactics. What is constructed can become real quite fast under the right circumstances, but can dissipate in due time as well.

Finally, the sum total of the various divisions that exist in Syrian society in terms of class, sect, region, political orientation, and ideology continue to work in the regime’s favor as they undermine effective forms of broad joint action against it. What exacerbates such ostensibly structural features is the fact that for several decades, Syrians were not used to or allowed to organize politically. Hence the art of compromise is being developed and learned in a volatile atmosphere where there is not much time or luxury for compromise. The two-hundred-plus factions among the opposition are both an evident symptom and a curse for the opposition. 

On the more humanitarian side, most Syrians are close to the brink on various levels: psychologically, emotionally, and economically. Whether it is the death of more than seventy thousand Syrians or the internal displacement and the refugee crisis, as well as the internal humanitarian crisis for those who can no longer fend or provide for themselves, Syrians are approaching an invisible limit of sorts that might manifest itself in further desperation and violence. 

Regional and International Theatre

There is no way to accurately depict the real position of regional and international players, and much has been written, and re-written, on this. Their behavior is often a function of a combination of self-interest, anticipated outcomes, and the position of their allies.

Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regimes are increasingly concerned about sectarian strife and radical Islamism endangering a semi-stable sub-region. Hence Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s relative lukewarm rhetoric and support recently of the opposition--this by no means represent a cessation of support. In fact, under the right circumstances--especially if the regime’s hand is weakened--this support will resume and surpass prior levels. Most of these countries are also affected by the US stance on the matter, which is also moving full swing into ambivalence or at least the pretense of ambivalence. This ambivalence on part of the US administration is motivated less by fear of sectarian strife and more by the unpredictability of the uprising’s direction and other preferences related to US foreign policy of late.

Israel’s “security”* concerns also play a not insignificant role in further diluting US rhetoric. These concerns range from fear of chemical weapons falling into the “wrong” hands to the jitteriness regarding the growth of Jabhat Al-Nusrah-type groups.  Most structurally,  however, is Israel’s concern towards a weakened state-to-be that will not be able to protect Israel’s northern border or police its citizens sufficiently to prevent the emergence of a Hizballah-like resistance group. I call this phenomenon “IAN” (Israel’s Asad nostalgia). Interestingly, Israel’s concerns end up tempering the positions of conservative Gulf Arab countries. Israel would like a state and military force that is weak enough in terms of posing a real military threat to Israel for years to come, and one that is strong enough to police its own people. This means the zone of unpredictability is a real source of concern and recalculation, and the Syrian situation has been firmly lodged in such a zone. (* the quotation marks refer to the irony of an exceptionally belligerent state that is concerned about its security, and where security denotes the continuation of racist policies within territories it controls)

Iran, despite all its open and muted rhetorical warnings towards the Syrian regime, has so much to lose as the Syrian regime is weakened. Its position is also the clearest and has not wavered much since the eruption of the uprising. Notably, Iran cautioned Asad several times early on not to use excessive violence, knowing full well that it is not in its interest to have Syria engulf itself in flames. Turkey, on the other hand, was less concerned about such outcomes early on. However, as time goes by, the Turkish leadership realized that their anticipation of a quick fall of the regime is not going to materialize, and that such protracted conflict with a regime that is willing to play the Kurdish card in northeastern Syria might backfire. However unchanged in principle, the Turkish position has been tempered of late, along with nearly all external players involved. 

As for Russia, one must always keep their eye on the basics, i.e., Russia is unlikely to abandon the regime until the last minute, and hence is likely to become increasingly interested in an outcome that preserves a modicum of the regime’s power and, by extension, its own leverage in the Levant. While Russia will not tangibly change its position and support vis-à-vis Syria because of the material consequences this may have, it can change its rhetoric to propel Asad towards a political solution. There is very little to say about China except that since its United Nations’s negative vote in support of the Syrian regime, it signed off until further notice. Its stance has not visibly changed since and is not likely to change until, possibly, the last minute.

Concluding Notes

The Syrian tragedy is just that: a tragedy of growing proportions by the week, as the state’s and the social fabric of Syria is being torn gradually. We often lose ourselves in the strategic and analytical details while lives are constantly being lost. For all those with any consequential power, the problem is becoming one where it is increasingly difficult to know in what direction to push in order to serve one’s interest. One thing is certain; the interest of the majority of the Syrian people is not likely to be served by nearly any group who wields power today, inside and outside Syria.

Analysts, including myself, are not absolved. We all participate in creating perceptions that shape reality and, sometimes, policy. Yet we are getting Syria wrong more often than not, and that is a direct consequence of pegging our interpretation on events as opposed to legacies, history, and a dynamic conception of the strategic playing field. But not all is foggy or unclear. 

Nearly two years after the uprising, the regime is neither as strong as it was before nor in complete control of more than half of Syrian territory, but it is standing. However, it has forever lost its ability to govern “Syria” as it once did, but not necessarily its ability to shape how Syria might be governed in the future, if cooler heads prevail among regime strongmen. At this point, it is in the regime’s interest for cooler heads to prevail. The post-December 2012 period saw a resurgence of regime confidence and vigor politically and militarily as well as signs of serious trepidation among the regional and international supporters of the uprising. This situation will not last for much longer. So long as this window is open, the question is whether the regime will submit to such logic (which, for instance, might be the best scenario for preserving the `Alawi community’s safety), or will the mixture of drunkenness on a legacy of decades of power and fear of extermination cause it to fight to the death? Will the Syrian regime consider the wellbeing of the now embattled `Alawi community which will be implicated, however unfairly, by decades of regime repression? Will it consider the larger fight against imperialism as the prize by preserving what it can of what is left of Syria? Will the Syrian regime try to protect Hizballah from the regional implications of its complete downfall? Most importantly, will it spare Syria and Syrians, as well as Syria’s military capabilities, a fight to the death (of everyone and everything)?

All empirical evidence point to the fact that these have been at one time or another a preference for the Syrian regime, but they have not been unconditional priorities. Nothing has ever risen above regime self-preservation over the past decades, and considering its cohesive nature, it was always going to be all or nothing. Whether it is its unprincipled neoliberal turn away from labor and redistributive policies towards rent-seekers and crony capitalism, the manner in which the regime allocated resources, or its participation in the US-led international coalition that began to destroy Iraq (not the Iraqi regime) in 1991, the rationale of self-preservation reigned supreme. It now has a clear chance to spare Syria more bloodshed and preserve a modicum of national interest if it moves decidedly towards a real political solution. The Syrian regime, and its supporters, will gain nothing from continuing to fight except the faint possibility that it might somehow prevail, a possibility that exists primarily and exclusively in the heads of its masters. Arguments about where the opposition is heading with its radicalization and Islamicization, and who’s behind it, should reinforce the need to act now, not postpone or forfeit.

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