Syria’s Torment

A new article of mine in IISS’ journal, Survival. For more see here.

Syria’s Torment

While there is a sliver of hope that a negotiated solution in Syria can be found, the Assad regime seems willing to destroy the country rather than give up power. The future looks bleak.

by Christopher Phillips

Article preview: When the dictatorial regimes of Tunisia and Egypt were toppled by popular unrest, few expected Syria to follow. Despite suffering under dictatorship for over 40 years and facing economic and social challenges similar to those that had prompted rebellion elsewhere, Syrians appeared to support their president, Bashar al-Assad, who had cultivated an image as a populist anti-Western moderniser. When mass protests did eventually reach Syria in March 2011, in the southern town of Deraa where locals demonstrated against the arrest of several teenagers for anti-regime graffiti, they called on Assad to reform, not resign. Yet any faith in Assad as a reformer soon evaporated. His security forces responded with live fire, killing hundreds in Deraa and elsewhere, while the president offered only superficial reforms. The regime fashioned a narrative that the protests were led by criminal armed gangs, intent on stirring up sectarian divisions within Syria’s heterogeneous population. Yet in these early stages it was the regime-backed Shabihha militia from Assad’s own Alawite sect that was responsible for most of the violence, while the protesters largely remained peaceful and inclusive. Tragically, as regime repression escalated and protests spread, with deaths as of mid-June 2012 estimated conservatively by the United Nations at 10,000, that narrative has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only has a major armed rebellion emerged, alongside continued peaceful protests, but sectarianism is increasing, with the Alawite community as a whole blamed for Assad’s excesses. Assad himself admitted in June that Syria was now in a ‘state of war’.

Yet the regime has proven more robust than many expected. The opposition, both within Syria and among exiles abroad, has been unable to win over key segments of Syrian society. The international community remains divided on what action to take, with Western and Arab economic sanctions only frustrating rather than disabling the regime, while allies Russia, China and Iran have been reluctant to abandon Assad. After over a year of violence Syria faces a civil war between the regime and the poorly armed but determined opposition, with the potential to transform one of the Middle East’s most stable states into a sectarian bloodbath.

The roots of the uprising

The concentration of opposition activity in certain areas suggests that certain ethnic, economic, demographic and geographical groups harbour more anti-regime feeling than others. For decades, the security state established by Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez, president from 1970 to 2000, encouraged social and economic inequalities as a means of divide and rule. Hafez created a coalition of diverse groups to secure his power. He won the support of Syria’s working class and peasantry, largely from the Sunni Arabs who make up 65% of the population, by building a large socialist state that provided employment and subsidies. He won the backing of Syria’s non-Sunni Arab minorities: the Christians (10% of the population), Druze (3%) and his own Alawite sect (10%). These groups welcomed Hafez’s secular Arab nationalist identity discourse that he promoted through expanded state institutions, notably the army and the ruling Ba’ath Party, as an alternative to that of the Sunni Arab elite that had ruled before him. While this coalition of support was sufficient to build a popular base, Hafez deliberately excluded some groups: Syria’s Kurds (approximately 12% of the population) and the former ruling elite, landowners and larger merchants who opposed his socialist policies. Many of the latter backed Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood in its failed rebellion against him in 1976–82 that ended only after the regime’s brutal attack on the rebellious city of Hama in 1982 that left over 10,000 civilians dead

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