What next in Syria? 4 scenarios

The decision to send the army into Deraa marked a new stage in Syria’s uprising. Having seen that the few superficial changes and reforms offered did not placate demonstrators, the Baath regime have resorted to blunt force to batter the opposition into submission, echoing the Iranian crushing of the Green movement in 2009 more than Hama in 1982 thus far. Some excellent analysis has been written recently, especially this from Fawaz Gerges. It is still far from clear where things are going in Syria at the moment – made even more difficult by the restrictions placed on journalists. However, I thought I’d take the opportunity to work out a few possible scenarios of what might lie ahead. These are clearly not the only possible paths, but working through the possibilities gives a clearer sense of what might happen.

1. The regime successfully crushes the uprising

After the brutality seen in Deraa, the fear barrier returns and all but a handful of protestors are dissuaded from returning to the streets in other towns and cities. The arrest of key figures and organisers who have been leading demonstrations takes its toll on the grass-roots movement and over several weeks of weaker and weaker Friday protests the momentum withers away. Those who do dare to protest return to the tens and hundreds and are easily picked off by security services, newly equipped with riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets. What follows is a reinvention of Syria as an even tighter police state, rather like it was immediately after Hama in the 1980s, where fear dominates.

However, as a consequence of the repression, the West treats Syria as a pariah and sanctions its economy and boycotts it diplomatically. While it’s already weak economy is propped up by grants and aid from the Gulf states and Iran – the only regimes that will deal with Syria – its economy cannot possibly sustain the police state apparatus needed to keep people in line. The middle classes, who had held back from turning on the regime in 2011, lose faith in the regime’s ability to deliver the prosperity it expects. The regime also lacks the funds to co-opt potentially rebellious elements into the establishment. It is only a matter of time before demonstrators are again emboldened to take to the streets once more, forcing the regime to either reform or quit.

Bottom line: This will only delay the regime’s downfall unless they can find ways of dramatically boosting the economy to satisfy the middle classes.

2. The regime voluntarily offers major concessions after repression fails to quell the protests

After Deraa is violently crushed, solidarity uprisings take place in Banyas, Homs and several other cities across Syria including, for the first time, Aleppo and central Damascus. For the first time several army units refuse orders to fire on protestors. Following intense international pressure, particularly from Turkey, President Assad recognizes that the level of repression needed to crush the whole country is too great and looks to offer major concessions. He offers his cousin, Rami Maklouf, as the sacrificial lamb who he packs off to Dubai, stripping him of his Syrian assets. He resists a similar approach to his brother, Maher, but quietly relieves him of command of the Republican guard. The commanders in charge of the Deraa and Homs crackdowns are brought to trial and scapegoated, while free elections are offered immediately. This is accompanied by dialogue with the various opposition leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, who are invited to return to form a loyal opposition. Though many in the opposition are skeptical, a critical number are willing to give these genuine reforms a chance, especially after the much-hated Makhlouf is exiled and people believe that Bashar is serious.

However, even after these concessions are made, demonstrators no longer trust Bashar given the violence of previous months and demand he offers new presidential elections, promising not to stand himself. Months of wrangling follow, with Assad determined to gain immunity from prosecution for him and his family from the ICC warrant that has just been issued before he eventually agrees to step down.

Bottom Line: After so much violence already it is questionable if Assad can offer anything other than his resignation and the complete destruction of the Baath state that they would accept. This would cost him and his family everything – possibly even their lives if they go to trial (a la Saddam) – and it is hard to see how he would ever agree to it.

3. The opposition takes up arms: civil conflict

The prospect of civil war has been thrown around by commentators a lot without necessarily explaining what this would actually look like. The opposition would need to take up arms for a civil war to begin, until then it would just be a repressive regime massacring its unarmed population. While small arms would be easy to come by through the many smuggling routes through Syria (via Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan), this would be no match for the Syrian army that could crush such a modestly armed opposition quite easily. Moreover, were the opposition to take up arms, this would no doubt galvanise any waverers in the army who were having doubts about shooting unarmed civilians. Yet why would the opposition take up arms? They know they could never get well enough armed to defeat the armed forces militarily, and fighting would undermine much international and domestic support. An armed clash would attract Salafis and Islamist fighters from abroad, mostly Iraq, Saudi and Lebanon, and would probably gain funding from individuals in Saudi Arabia. Yet such a religious conflict would alienate the large secular elements of Syrian society, which might end up supporting the government. It would therefore seem highly unwise for the opposition to throw away its credibility and support for an unwinnable fight against the military.

That might change however if we see substantial defections from the military to the opposition side. If we take it for granted that certain elements of the security services, Alawi officers and the Republican guard, will stay loyal to the regime to the end, individual junior officers and soldiers may yet be willing to defect. Were it to take place, this would provide the opposition with a serious fighting force and could persuade their leaders to risk launching a civil conflict. However, even this would simply redress the balance and is unlikely to tip in favour of opposition victory. Prolonged civil war and stalemate is the best they could hope for. Moreover, despite some hopeful signs seen by opposition writer in exile,Ammar Abdulhamid, there seems little widespread signs of this happening.

Bottom line: Protracted civil war that descends into sectarianism under the influence of foreign Islamists, similar to Iraq or Lebanon, or alternatively an armed uprising quickly crushed by government.

4. The opposition overthrows the regime

This is perhaps the most optimistic and least likely possibility, and incorporates elements of the other scenarios. In order for the regime to be toppled a lot needs to happen that has not yet taken place. Not only do the protestors need to rally after the attacks on Deraa and Douma, they need to increase their number, presence and persistence. Syria needs to have the kind of mass demonstrations in the hundred thousands seen in Egypt and Tunisia that last for days, not just on Fridays, and they need to bring the major cities of Aleppo and Damascus to a standstill. Such demonstrations could persuade the weaker elements of the ruling coalition, the business leaders and the least loyal sections of the army, that ongoing repression is not sustainable indefinitely. This is the next change needed: key elements of the security services and the government need to defect to the opposition. At the moment, the regime looks tight at the top, with few signs that anyone will waiver, which allows it to batter down the hatches in the short-term. The prospect of international sanctions might also encourage the business class to defect if they believe that the regime faces a long period of international economic isolation that could serious damage their long-term prosperity.

Defections might also provide the opposition with leading figures that bridge the divide to persuade others, particularly from the minority sects (the Alawis and Christians) that an opposition government would not be led by sectarian Sunnis seeking vengeance on those who backed the Baathists.   Were all these things to take place, the regime might start to crumble rather like Qaddaffis appeared to be doing in the early days of the Libyan unrest. This might leave a rump regime of the Assads and their few Alawi security force loyalists who would see their game is up.

Bottom line: It is a very long way for the opposition to go to reach this point, and it relies on a huge amount of bravery on behalf of the Syrian people in the face of repression. It also depends on defections that seem unlikely right now. This is what most outsiders want to see, but it also appears the furthest from sight.

Israel’s take on Syria’s unrest

The Jerusalem Post’s Jerusalem Report has produced this interesting analysis of different Israeli Syrian experts’ views on the current Syria unrest. Not surprisingly there is the preoccupation with Iran and how the weakening or even toppling of the Baath regime would impact on Damascus’ relations with Tehran.

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and one of the country’s leading Syria scholars, maintains that if Assad falls or is forced to endure a long period of instability, the big losers will be Iran and its proxies. “Syria is the cornerstone of the pro-Iranian axis. A weakening of Assad’s regime, not to speak of its falling, would be a heavy blow to Iran, Hizballah and Hamas,” .

Personally i think it is a bit of a red herring to focus too much on any post-Baath Syria’s international or regional relations. Obviously some in Israel hope that were Bashar to fall (and this does not seem likely right now) that whoever comes next will distance Syria from Iran. This, however, confuses regime interests with national interests.

Were the Baath to fall, whoever followed would still likely stick to two principle strands of Baathist foreign policy which are, in effect, Syria’s national interests: the return of the Golan Heights and a dominating influence in Lebanon. Unless Israel was suddenly willing to hand over Golan as a sweetener to the new Damascus regime, which is highly unlikely, any new government would maintain the state of war with Tel Aviv and seek alliances with those that confront and harass Israel in an attempt to push them to the negotiating table. Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran would still offer to fulfil that role. The western allied Sunni regional powers – notably Saudi – would be hard pressed to offer something incredibly alluring to the new regime to tempt it away completely.

In short, Golan and Lebanon will remain any Syrian government’s number one foreign policy priorities, whoever is in power, and if Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas offer the best route to achieve that, there is no reason why the alliance would be abandoned after any change of government.

Syria Unrest: Is Assad up to it?

It has been a few weeks since I last posted on Syria, and unfortunately the regime has proven far more brutal than many expected. For four weeks now we have seen demonstrations spread beyond Deraa to Banias, Homs, Hama, Deir-es-Zour, Qamishli, Hassake, Lattakia, Douma and even Harasta this week, with over 150 deaths reported in total.

Faced with crisis, President Assad has proved unimaginative. Having raised hopes of reform through comments made by high-ranking officials, Assad dashed expectations with an underwhelming speech before parliament last week. Since then he has offered a few superficial concessions, such as citizenship to stateless Kurds and repealing his ban on the niqaab for classroom teachers, but nothing close to the real, wide ranging reforms that demonstrators want. Some good analysis has been written recently (here, here and here) on whether Assad is a reformer at heart or not, having promoted that image at home and abroad for a decade, but seemingly failing now when the key moment comes. Yet is this issue of his ‘true’ intentions misleading? Rather than look at his beliefs, should we not consider Assad’s ability? Here is a man with no background in politics or even the military, save for the few courses he was rushed through from 1994-2000 after his brother Basil’s death. Does he actually possess either the ruthlessness or the political skill needed to recover from a serious internal challenge?

Misjudging the protests

What is clear is that Assad seriously misread the situation after the first demonstrations. His parliamentary speech was all style and no substance. The style was well rehearsed: he looked laid back, approachable and friendly – the very image he has cultivated for the past decade in Syria, and one of the reasons why people seemed to genuinely like him. But the substance was vacuous, rhetorical and substandard for the occasion. With officials such as Farouk al-Sharra raising expectations before the speech, most Syrians wanted major concessions. Yet when the expected reforms weren’t included in the speech, the same laid back, almost jokey style appeared flippant and even insulting: how could the President laugh and smile when 60+ people had been killed in Deraa? His not offering an apology to the families of the deceased was a further insensitive error.

What perhaps Assad did not realise is that, until that speech, he had been the regime’s greatest asset. Most Syrians resent and dislike most of the regime, especially the corrupt members of Assad’s immediate family, but seem to buy the ‘quiet reformer’ line and place Bashar on a higher pedestal. Yet by refusing to offer anything but promises of yet more committees – the same committees that were formed in 2005 and produced no results to date – public faith in Assad as a true reformer will erode. Exacerbating things have been Bouthaina Shaabaan’s comments that she was in the room when President Assad told security forces not to harm protesters. This serves only to trap Assad in his own regime’s rhetoric: if more people die – which they have since Shaaban’s comments – he looks either too weak to control his own security forces from killing people, or a liar. Either way, his popular support erodes further.

Weak leader?

So is he weak or a liar? Most would like to think that he has not himself been ordering the brutal crackdowns that have cost many Syrians their lives.  Most see rogue commanders, possibly on the order of Maher al Assad (Bashar’s more hardline brother), being more aggressive than Bashar would wish. Yet this is not the first incident like this under Bashar’s watch. Ignoring the alleged Syrian role in various Lebanese assassinations including Rafik Hariri, there was the crackdown on Kurdish activists in 2004 that killed at least 30, and the 2008 Sednaya prison massacre in which 25 prisoners were allegedly killed. It is all very well to say that these too may have been out of Bashar’s control, but did he make any attempt to discipline those officers involved? Was there an investigation into the killings? Even if Bashar is not ordering the crackdown’s himself, he is hardly cultivating a system in which rogue officers will fear the consequences if they overstep the line.

All of which suggests Assad is weak and unable to project control over large segments of the security forces. It was tragically farcical that he ordered an investigation into the deaths in Deraa last month, only for another 25 to be killed yesterday.  Surely no leader who hopes to retain power could fail to see the huge contradiction: you are willing to investigate rogue officers’ actions after they kill innocents, but you are unable to prevent them from killing more in the meantime. It is not surprising that many Syrians will conclude that security forces commit these killings with the full backing of the regime.

The question of weakness can also explain the lack of real reforms offered by Bashar. To satisfy protesters’ demands he needs to go beyond a superficial change in the nature of the emergency law or the number of co-opted parties sitting in parliament. Instead, he needs to hack through the very heart of his regime and family: force Maher, brother-in-law Asef Shawkat and cousin Rami Makhlouf to give up power and privilege, route out corruption in the regime and open up the political system. The impression given from the speech last week was that, for all his joking and laughing, President Assad doesn’t dare.

The second-generation autocrat

Yet why has so much been expected of Assad? He way well be the jovial, approachable character that his image-makers promote, but does that qualify him to lead the way out of crisis? He is a second-generation autocrat who became president because of his family not because of his ability, and even then he was second choice behind Basil. To be fair, his record as president has shown an ability to survive threats from abroad. He was able to outmaneuver the Bush administration on both Lebanon and Iraq. He has shown some diplomatic skill as well: forging close ties to Turkey was a masterstroke to survive international isolation, and recognizing the need to withdraw from Lebanon quickly in 2005 showed astuteness. Yet even with foreign policy, the majority of Bashar’s approach has been a continuation of his fathers and has not required a great deal of imagination. The same can be said for domestic policy. There have been moves to liberalise the economy – another extension of Hafez’s own infitah in the 1990s – but these have been stymied by an unwillingness to target the crony capitalism of Assad’s inner circle, particularly Makhlouf. Moreover, having promised political reform in 2000 and 2005, very little has changed and the same elites hold power. After a decade of waiting with no returns, who could be blame Syrians for doubting that Assad will dare to really change anything now?

In short, little in Assad’s time as president, or even his life before it, has shown that he has the domestic political skill, either innovation or ruthlessness, needed to survive this political crisis. This does not mean that he will be toppled tomorrow, and there certainly isn’t a clear alternative to the Assad regime waiting in the wings just yet. Moreover he may still surprise us with a resolve, as yet unseen, though the signs are not good. With every new demonstration, crackdown or superficial concession offered, Assad’s popular image of a reforming modernizer is being severely tarnished in the eyes of the Syrian people. If he doesn’t learn how to lead soon, alternatives that would have never been countenanced just a few months ago will become increasingly attractive to his frustrated former supporters in the Syrian public.