November 27, 2011

Syria - nearing the brink of civil war?

The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, almost to the point that many observers are warning that the country is destined for a civil war. The divisions in the country go far beyond the political differences that have existed in Syria since the country was created after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One. When there are significant defections from the Syrian armed forces and attacks on Syrian military installations, there is the potential for the breakdown of civil authority and the descent into a civil war between two defined groups, or a complete breakdown and the evolution of anarchy. In Syria, I suspect it will be the former.

For those of us who have lived in the country and observed it first hand, it comes as no surprise that the government and various segments of the population are so far apart. When I was assigned to the American Embassy as the air attache, it was evident that there were huge divisions between the rulers and the ruled, the exploiters and the exploited, those on the inside and the rest of the country.

In an academic paradigm, the divisions are moot points. In the reality of the current situation on the streets of Syria's cities, the divisions take on serious meanings. The willingness of an oppressed population to demonstrate against - and confront - a government that shows no remorse in using troops backed by armor and artillery only tells me that the country is indeed headed for a civil war.

One thing is clear to me: President Bashar al-Asad will not step down. No combination of western, United Nations or the imminent Arab League sanctions will convince him that a voluntary abdication is a viable course of action. If Bashar is to be removed from power, it will be after much more bloodshed and civil strife in the country. Should Bashar al-Asad be removed, it will also be the death knell for the position of his corrupt 'Alawi clans.

More important than the removal of the 'Alawi clans from power, the downfall of Bashar al-Asad will also spell the end of secular socialist Ba'th Party. The Ba'th Party has been in power for over four decades, and while almost universally regarded as nothing more than "'Alawi, Inc." or "The al-Asad Corporation," it does maintain a stance against rising Islamic fundamentalism in the country. That one fact is key to the support the al-Asad regime enjoys among a significant portion of the Sunni and Christian Arab members of the population. Many Syrians fear that the demise of the al-Asad family and the Ba'th Party will lead to an Islamic fundamentalist government in Syria. These Syrians prefer "the devil you know" to the specter of an Islamic republic.

Thus far, nothing has altered the behavior of the al-Asad regime. Sanctions imposed by the United States and European nations have had little effect. That is not surprising since Syria has been somewhat of a pariah nation for decades. The threat of Arab League sanctions carries a bit more weight, but in the end, Syria is no stranger to being estranged from its Arab brethren. In one of the longest and bloodiest wars in modern history, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Syria alone among the Arab countries sided with Persian Iran against Arab Iraq.

While virtually all Arab states were materially, financially or morally supporting Iraq, Syria provided access to its airbases for Iranian aircraft conducting attacks against targets in Iraq. Given the fact that Syria's major trading partners are countries in the European Union and its major export to those countries is oil, I doubt the threat of sanctions from the Arab League will have any real impact on the al-Asad regime. Yes, it acts concerned about the opinions of the Arab League, but in the end will stand alone against its Arab brethren. It really has no choice.

It may be the refusal of the al-Asad regime to deal with the international community that eventually leads to its demise. Every week there are reports of new defections from the Syrian armed forces to the Free Syrian Army (logo left*), the major in-country opposition group. These former Syrian military personnel have the weapons and training to create real problems for the regime.

During the initial period of the uprising, the majority of the demonstrators were civilians across the country - there was no coherent, organized opposition. Now we have the Free Syrian Army appealing to soldiers to defect to the opposition, with some effect. Outside the country, the Syrian National Council (SNC) is the leading opposition group. According to most analysts of things Syrian - including me - the SNC is basically the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yes, that is the same al-ikhwan al-muslimin that has gained the upper hand in Tunisia and Egypt, will likely be the key power broker in Libya, and is on the rise in Morocco and Algeria. North Africa is becoming a victory story for the Brotherhood, which comes as no surprise - many of the Islamists captured or killed fighting for al-Qa'idah throughout the Middle East and South Asia are from the area stretching from Morocco to Egypt.

Note also that the SNC is based in Turkey. The current Turkish government is headed by an Islamist prime minister (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and cabinet, much to the chagrin of the generally secular Turks. The Turkish government has been the primary supporter of the SNC. Since the SNC is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, this alliance should come as no surprise, but I get the impression that not many people are connecting those dots.

Will the Turks assist the Free Syrian Army and/or the Syrian National Council with money and equipment (diplo-speak for weapons)? If the situation gets worse, I think they will. The Turks are already providing a moral and political support. However, if they move to the next level, they need to be prepared for the Syrians to renew their material and safe haven support to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). In the past, when the Turks reduced the flow of the Euphrates River to the legal minimum, that action shut down many of the electrical generating turbines at the Tabaqah dam. The Syrians would then allow the PKK to launch cross border raids into southern Turkey.

The rise of the Free Syrian Army increases the probability of a civil war. The defectors from the Syrian army not only have access to weapons, they have inside knowledge of the regime's armed forces. That inside knowledge contributed to the group's successful ambush of a group of Syrian air force pilots on the the Homs-Palmyra road last week. The group claims that they killed eight "elite" pilots from the airbase at Tiyas; I assume they were assigned to the 819th squadron that flies the Su-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter bomber. There is nothing else at Tiyas that could be construed as elite.

Given the refusal of the al-Asad regime to act like part of the international community of nations, and the ride of opposition groups both inside and outside the country, it appears that a civil war is almost becoming inevitable. The upside is the removal of the al-Asad regime and the Ba'th Party. The downside is the bloodshed and probable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It's a tough call - which is better? A secular Syria allied with Iran under the Ba'th Party and President Bashar al-Asad, or Syria dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood? I guess it depends on who you ask.

* In the image of the Free Syrian Army and in the image at the top of this article, the flag (on which the logo is based) is not the current Syrian flag, although it does comprise the common Arab (and Muslim) colors of red, white, black and green. The flag dates back to 1932 and is unofficially called the "flag of independence" because it was the flag in use when Syria achieved independence from the French Mandate on April 17, 1946. It was used until 1958, making it the longest used flag in Syrian history. It is considered a symbol of protest against the Ba'th Party and the al-Asad regime.