August 31, 2011

Syria - the chances for change

Syrian Army Vehicle 907735

After the fall of the Mu'amar al-Qadhafi regime in Libya, much of the world's attention has turned to the ongoing crisis in Syria. The situation in Syria is not quite the same as in Libya - in Syria there is no coherent and organized opposition that has the wherewithal to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Asad.

There is, however, a history of resistance in Syria going back to the founding of the county - Syria was created in the aftermath of World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire that had ruled the area for centuries. Based on the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, the French assumed control of the area that is now the countries of Lebanon and Syria. Despite the efforts of Prince Faysal, close ally of Colonel T.E. Lawrence (more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia), to gain acceptance of and support for an independent kingdom in the former Ottoman lands, the British departed Syria in favor of the French. Faysal had led the Arab Revolt which made major contributions to the British in their defeat of the Ottoman Turks.

The French were given a formal mandate by the League of Nations in 1920. Faysal declared an independent Arab kingdom at the same time and refused to acknowledge the French Mandate. The Christians in what is now Lebanon rejected Faysal's announcement and declared an independent Lebanon. In response to Faysal's actions, the French began to move troops from Beirut towards Damascus. Faysal left the country and moved to Baghdad where the British enthroned him as the monarch of the newly created Kingdom of Iraq.

A weak Syrian army engaged the French as they approached Damascus. The French easily defeated the Syrians at Maysalun, a pass about 10 miles west of the city. The Battle of Maysalun was only the beginning of a series of uprisings against the French. It took the French three years to impose full control over the country.

In 1925, the Druze in southern Syria rebelled against the French occupation. The rebellion spread throughout the country. The French managed to maintain some semblance of control until 1936 when the two sides signed an agreement creating a Syrian republic. French forces remained until 1946.

There were coups against Syrian governments in 1949, 1951, 1954, 1961 and 1963. The 1963 coup brought the current ruling party, the Ba'th Party, to power. In 1970, Hafiz al-Asad, father of the current president, lead a "Corrective Movement" that continued Ba'th Party rule but under his control. His son Bashar assumed power on his father's death in 2000 after the Syrian parliament changed the constitution to allow the 33-year old to become president - the Syrian constitution previously required the president to be at least 40 years of age. The revolt in 1925 and the subsequent coups were organized and mostly led by military officers. Today's demonstrations are not led by military officers and are not centrally organized.

There have been challenges by Islamic groups against the government, beginning in 1979 and culminating in the 1982 uprising in Hamah. Hamah is now the venue of some of the most violent repression of the current protests. When the Muslim Brotherhood stood up against the Ba'ath Party in February 1982, then-President Hafiz al-Asad dispatched his brother General Rifa't al-Asad and his feared Defense Companies to quell the city. He did just that.

In what has become known in the region as "the Hamah rules," the Syrian soldiers issued an ultimatum for the Brotherhood to surrender. When the Islamists refused to comply, the soldiers laid waste to the city, killing as many as 25,000 citizens, and incurring 1000 dead among the troops. It was one of the most brutal repressions by a country of its own citizens in modern Arab history.

Although the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has survived, it has not been a threat to the government. When I was assigned to the American Embassy in Damascus, I would occasionally hear gunfire in the city. Several times, I approached the area of the shooting and in most cases the story was the same. Members of the Brotherhood had been discovered and had barricaded themselves in a building. Police and security officers explained to me that the Islamists never give up, so usually the authorities burned the structure with the members inside.

Since the advent of the rule of the Asads - Hafiz the father and Bashar the son - their internal security agencies, and there are many of them, have thoroughly neutralized any credible, organized opposition to the regime. Given the regime's total lack of hesitation to use military force against its own citizens and its past history in places such as Hamah in 1982, I must admit that I am surprised that the Syrian people have been willing to participate in these demonstrations and protests.

I fear that no matter how large the demonstrations become, it will fail in front of Syrian guns. Change in Syria, like Iraq and Libya before it, will require some external force. In Iraq, it was the American-led invasion of 2003. In Libya, it was NATO air support to a fairly organized opposition movement in a much more homogeneous society.

What form will potential external support take? An invasion is not going to happen. President Barack Obama has taken military action off the table. How about a NATO air campaign to protect Syrian citizens as was done in Libya? If Obama is serious that there will be no American military action, it cannot happen. NATO's weaknesses were laid bare in the Libya operation. Perhaps Turkey, a member of NATO, will allow use of its air bases, but unless there is U.S. military involvement, it will fail.

Again, I favor the removal of the al-Asad/Ba'th regime in Syria. I am just not sure it can happen without some outside help...and I don' see it coming anytime soon.

The chances for change in Syria? Slim.