Syria: State of the Country

The popular protests of the Arab Spring which manifested in demonstrations and flash mobs since 2011, have opened a Pandora’s Box of unrest in the Middle East and beyond. Rather than resulting in a transition from authoritarian regimes to Western-style liberal democracy, Arab spring upheavals mainly shattered the economically and politically fragile systems of governance in Syria, Libya and Yemen with disastrous consequences; protestors had little if no capability to reform traditional institutions and had nothing to offer as an alternative to the ailing leadership which created a stark vacuum of moral authority. As a result, Libya, Yemen and Syria experienced a de facto partition, largely due to the inability of outgoing pundits to meet social and economic challenges of the moment. Yemen has become a theatre of a proxy war between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia et al, divided between Houthi rebels in the North and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the South with the ISIS/Da’esh factor thrown in for good measure, with no foreseeable future of resolution except to once again being partitioned. Since the NATO- led involvement in 2011, Libya has devolved into an ungovernable patchwork of Islamist fiefdoms with impotent rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk competing against each other for nominal political legitimacy while simultaneously engaging extremist groups, including the Islamic State (Da’esh).

In both Libya and Yemen, the social and economic structure has been completely destroyed after the total collapse of central governments. In Syria, however, the government of Bashar al-Assad has managed to survive, albeit in a seriously jeopardized conditions in the midst of the international controversy as to who and how is going to receive an unenviable task of governing the future of the country. If the lessons of political implosion in Libya and Yemen are to be taken seriously, so should the realities of a future post-Assad Syria. We hereby argue that the total collapse of the current central government in Syria will directly facilitate the strengthening of Da’esh as well as Al-Qaeda affiliates in the region of the Levant, a scenario which in itself would likely lead to the failure of political reform and subsequently endanger the future democratic development of the region as a whole. This is reason enough to work towards temporary sustaining the current government of Bashar al-Assad as an only realistic means available of eradicating radical Islamist insurgency, which now poses greater threat to regional and world stability than any “dictatorial” establishment in existence since the twentieth century.

The suggestion that Bashar al-Assad be included in a political resolution to the Syrian civil war is highly controversial (James Anderson, 2011).  The Assad regime is being accused of committing numerous violations of human rights, and of keeping power is tightly in the hands of an Alawite minority. Though the underlying considerations are more to do with the close political ties of Syrian establishment to both Iran and Russia.  Some observers posit that the response of the Syrian authorities to 2011 manifestations with force not only fueled the rebellion, but also irreversibly delegitimized his rule (ibid). These observations are not entirely without merit, although there are reasonable doubts as to the origins of the data used when justifying the precondition of ousting Bashar al-Assad. The majority of Assad opponents rationalize the need of the regime to go with the alleged human rights abuses as the focal point. Curiously, while the West championed the enshrinement of human rights in Syria, it simultaneously chose to be relatively silent in 2011 when confronted with the hideous repression of Shiites in Bahrain. Similar questions can be raised regarding the unanimous support of el-Sisi’s strict rule in Egypt, or Saudi Arabia’s endemic pattern of horrific human rights abuses. These policy inconsistencies raise an interesting question: what differentiates the conduct of Damascus from that of Cairo and Riyadh? Where are the calls for regime change in Manama?

The government of Damascus is dominated by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party, an organization with origins traceable to the founding of Syria in 1947. Baathism is an Arab nationalist ideology, authored by Christian Michel Aflaq, which advocates left-leaning populist economic reform, secularism, and anti-imperialism. From 1970-2000, Syria was ruled by Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite Syrian with an extensive military background. After a rapid rise within the Syrian Arab Air force, Hafez al-Assad seized power. This was a remarkable accomplishment considering his Alawite status (ibid), as the impoverished Alawites had been traditionally subjected to sectarian discrimination by the rich Sunni Arab majority which dominated social and economic elite in Syria. In fact, appreciating the minority status of Hafez al-Assad is crucial. By emphasizing the role of the State in the formation of one’s identity as opposed to religious affiliation or ethnic background, the sectarian climate of minority repression was supplanted by a united front of Arab nationalism and secularism (Lesch). As a result, the Syrian population began to embrace a unified nationalist identity as opposed to the sectarian alternative that had dominated Syrian politics for centuries (Jamal Wakim, 2013).

There is no doubt that the al-Assad era was one of unprecedented stability and economic development in Syria. This economic growth managed to weather the collapse of the Soviet Union, achieving rates of 7-8 percent annual fiscal growth from 1991-1994 (Steven Heydemann, 1999). From the early 1990s until 2011, Syria played an active role in the international community, even assisting the United States in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Even the death of Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 failed to destabilize the Syrian state; the transition of power from Hafez to his son, Bashar, was seamless. Baathist secularism guaranteed the protection (and thus earned the support) of religious minorities, including Druze, Shiite Muslims and Maronite Christians. This legacy of minority protection is reflected in the support lent to the Syrian government by Syrian Christians in the current civil war.

Of course, much of this ‘protection’ eventually devolved into sectarian corruption, with members of the Sunni Arab majority often denied the economic/social mobility afforded to minority groups (Lesch, 75). Indeed, the Assad family has traditionally relied heavily on the Alawite community to bolster regime security forces (Ibid, 80). This underlying sectarian divide erupted violently in March 2011; many of the initial protestors were Sunni Muslims, and many of them were killed by regime security forces. Invariably, the debate surrounding the conditions under which these killings took place has become highly politicized, but the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s response to these protests cannot be denied. Rather, the current atmosphere of chronic instability calls for a reluctant reassessment of Assad’s role, both in the current civil war as well as during the post-conflict reconstruction period. In order for security to be re-established and political reform to be implemented, the Syrian government must decisively win the ongoing civil war. All terrorist groups must be crushed and security re-established before any serious attempt at a political transition, including the retirement of Bashar al-Assad can be made.

Moreover, any political fallout following an Assad regime collapse would extend beyond the borders of Syria and further destabilize neighboring countries. The greater impact of this civil war is exemplified by the refugee catastrophe that has gripped the region since 2011.  Indeed, the seemingly endless flow of refugees into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan as well as Europe is a tangible humanitarian symptom of this problem. These figures have progressively worsened each year since the war began, but it cannot be denied that while anti-government forces have seized over 80 percent of Syrian territory, the overwhelming majority of Syrian urban centers remain under government control, including 12 Syria’s 14 provincial capital cities. With regards to the two provincial capitals completely outside regime control: Islamic State terrorists succeeded in seizing ar-Raqqa in 2013, while ‘moderate’ rebels fighting alongside the Al-Nusra Front wrestled away the provincial capital of Idlib in March of 2015. Should the major cities of Syria (Damascus, Homs, Deraa, Latakia and Tartous, to name a few) fall into the hands of Islamic State (or their ideological brethren, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front), the consequences would be catastrophic.

Opportunistic rivals of Syria have used this conflict to advance their own geopolitical interests, just as Syria’s allies have. Syria’s rivals are primarily Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Israeli Syrian tensions date back many years, with the countries having experienced intermittent conflict since 1967, when Israel illegally annexed the Syrian Golan Heights. Israel’s unilateral occupation of Golan has never been recognized by international law, and has been routinely condemned by the United Nations as illegitimate (UN Resolution 497). This land theft was even denounced by the United States, Israel’s most influential benefactor on the UN Security Council. Yet the occupation remains, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting Israeli national security, although more likely it continues because of the Golan’s extensive petroleum reserves. Israel has thus sided with the insurgency or at least abstains from actively opposing it, likely as a means of eliminating its primary competitor for the Golan Heights and consolidating its occupation there. Turkey and Saudi Arabia both have offered materiel support to insurgent groups operating within Syria as well. However, the Syrian insurgency is hardly a monolith; the three most capable rebel groups are the Islamic State, the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Conspicuously absent from this list are the ‘moderate’ rebels, or the Free Syrian Army. Simply put, the FSA has long since ceased to exist in an independent or militarily significant capacity. The Guardian even reported as long ago as 2013 that FSA fighters often defect to Al-Nusra Front, and in large numbers. Thus, America’s policy of backing the ‘moderate’ rebels is all the more curious, since there are an inconsequential amount of moderates left to support.

Moreover, while holding a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2003, Syria drafted legislation calling for universal WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction)   disarmament in the Middle East. This resolution was stonewalled due to western support for the non-compliant Tel Aviv regime, which has openly refused to sign arms control treaties designed to stem the proliferation of WMDs (interestingly, Israel is one of only five UN member states that has not yet ratified the CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) along with North Korea, South Sudan, Egypt and Angola). Syria also held unprecedented multi-candidate presidential elections during the summer of 2014. It is important to note that these elections were held despite the ongoing wartime climate, and the viability of the opposition candidates remained questionable at best. Nevertheless, these elections were the first pluralistic presidential elections in Syrian history, and were endorsed by an international monitoring group.

As we can see, while the Syrian regime is not a model of modern civilized governance, it is nevertheless a desirable alternative to Al-Nusra or the rapidly advancing Islamic State. Respectfully, it is doubtful that ISIS or Al-Nusra would be enthusiastic about holding elections of any kind, or adopting international arms control treaties such as the CWC. The same goes for the various “legitimate” opposition bodies involved in the pacification process in Syria.  As the fight against radical Islamist groups in Syria gains steady momentum since the liberation of Palmira the issues pertaining post-war Syrian governance occupy center-stage position and the call for reasonable non-sectarian approach is in demand.