May 15, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Syria: Assad’s Diminishing Options for Remaining in Power

As of mid-May 2012, an uprising that began as large, but relatively peaceful protests in March 2011 has mushroomed into an all-out rebellion. Since the uprising began, Assad's response has been primarily to characterize the opposition as tools of foreign influence and members of international terrorist organizations. He made clear that he would not hesitate to use force against demonstrators to stay in office.


Early Progress of the Uprising

As 2011 progressed and the uprising continued, Assad acquiesced to a number of relatively minor political reforms, including changes to the Syrian constitution that would dilute the singular authority of Bashar al-Assad's Baath Party. However, these moves were seen as too little, too late by a population that had suffered through his security crackdown. The  opposition grew larger and bolder as more of their ranks were killed and injured at the hands of security forces.

By late 2011, the uprising had become a life-or-death struggle with the regime, with no opportunity for peaceful resolution. It had become largely a sectarian struggle between the Sunni Arab majority (about 70% of the population) and Assad's Alawite community — an offshoot of Shiite Islam that constitutes about 12% of the population. At the same time, the Christian and Kurdish communities, both relatively small at about 10% and 5% of the population, respectively, fear that the alternative to Assad could be an Islamist regime that would abandon the long standing traditions of protecting and tolerating religious and ethnic minorities.

The revolt also became increasingly militarized with the emergence by late 2011 of the "Free Syrian Army." Formed from a loosely organized collection of armed groups consisting primarily of defectors from Assad's military, it became the military wing of the opposition movement and protected peaceful demonstrations. By the end of 2011, Free Syrian Army units had expelled Syrian security forces from several locations, including Homs and Idlib – strongholds of opposition to Assad – and sought to develop these areas into "liberated zones" from which to expand the writ of the opposition. 


Revolt Is Now a Civil War

In early 2012, the Assad regime judged that the situation was growing dire. Not only was the city of Homs and much of the north held by Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups, but the suburbs of Damascus were also slipping out of government control. In March 2012, Assad decided to launch all-out military offensives against opposition-controlled territory; the most intense fighting was over the city of Homs, which was shelled and attacked for at least one month before Free Syrian Army members fled the city in late March.    

The Assad regime's pronouncements of "victory," however, proved hollow by mid-April. It became clear that recapturing opposition-held centers did not amount to defeating the opposition. Protests have continued throughout the country, and even intensified in the previously quiet major city of Aleppo — the commercial hub of Syria. Even cities retaken militarily by the regime, such as Idlib, remain largely under the political control of the opposition, as do many of the suburban neighborhoods of Damascus, such as Douma. The Free Syrian Army was not defeated — it simply altered its strategy from one of holding territory to a campaign to bleed the Syrian army through insurgent attacks, including roadside bombs against military convoys. A component of the opposition, possibly consisting of Syrians but perhaps also Al Qaeda or other foreign fighters from Iraq or elsewhere, has launched a campaign of suicide car bombings against regime installations.    

At the same time, desertions from the Syrian military — which is largely Sunni, but commanded by Alawites loyal to Assad — have continued at a steady pace. The military, increasingly hampered not only by defections, but also by the shrinking resource base of the regime as international sanctions have taken their toll, is spread thin and has, by all accounts, weakened noticeably.


Still No Imminent Regime Collapse

Although the regime has weakened, there is no sign of imminent collapse. There have, to date, been only mid-level defections from the government itself, and no senior member of Assad's inner circle has broken with him. The Syrian military and security services are shrinking, but no major Alawite commander has defected, and the military, as a whole, has not balked at its orders to fire on the civilian population. Damascus is no longer spared violence, but neither has it witnessed mass demonstrations. And, in what experts say may be the paramount consideration, the political opposition remains highly divided. The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, has been wracked by divisions and resignations in recent months, and has only tenuous links, and certainly no firm command, over the Free Syrian Army.     

What could potentially hurt the opposition's cause most are the suicide bombings in Damascus, the most potent of which occurred on May 10, 2012, and killed 55 persons, mostly civilians (although the target, the headquarters of the intelligence service's Palestine Branch was destroyed). Such attacks have cost the opposition some international support — in the form of increased fears of Al Qaeda influence — and play into the regime's narrative that the opposition consists mainly of terrorist gangs.


International Response: Tepid but With Options Remaining

The opposition would likely be closer to toppling Assad by now had the international response to the Syria crisis been unified. Russia and China, both of whom perceived that the United States and its allies misused U.N. Security Council authority to topple Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, have backed international sanctions, but refuse to sign onto to any Security Council resolution that would insist that Assad yield power. As a result, the United States and its allies, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have assembled a looser affiliation of countries — outside the Security Council — to consider actions beyond economic sanctions and diplomacy.

Still, the Obama Administration has resisted calls for direct military intervention, arguing that doing so would entangle the United States militarily and would have an uncertain outcome. Nor has the Administration backed suggestions to provide arms to the opposition. For now, this has left the Administration with much less effective alternatives, such as supporting a GCC initiative, announced in April 2012, to fund the Syrian rebels. And, U.S. diplomacy has had to settle for Russia and China's agreement to send in up to 300 U.N. monitors as part of a plan negotiated by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. That plan called for a withdrawal of Syrian forces from population centers and a total ceasefire in Syria by April 16. No observer has reported that such steps have been fully implemented, although less than half of the observers are in place yet and overall violence reportedly has been reduced somewhat.  Still, some predict that the almost inevitable failure of the Annan plan will cause the Administration to shift to a more muscular approach that might involve, at the very least, arming the Syrian opposition, either directly or tacitly via the GCC states.

At that point, the rules of engagement for Syria — in both the local and international context — will have profoundly changed, altering both the order of things in the country and among nations.



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