December 24, 2011

Syria on the brink of a civil war

Syrian television images of a car used in one of two suicide bombings
 in Damascus targeting military and civilian intelligence facilities

The headlines are virtually the same every day - more Syrian civilians are killed by the military and security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Asad and more soldiers defect to the opposition. Of course, the regime has recently upped the ante, adding jet fighters and helicopter gunships to the fight. The death toll is over 5,000 civilians, while the regime claims that over 2,000 of its troops and security personnel have been killed as well.

The Syrian government agreed to allow a team of Arab League observers into the country; the advance element arrived in the last few days. The team is headed by a Sudanese general with blood on his hands from the genocide in Darfur, leading to questions of the credibility of the observer mission. The team will theoretically monitor an agreement between Syria and the Arab League by which the Syrian military will withdraw from the cities.

As the observers began to arrive, recent headlines change things even more, and not in a good way. Two suicide bombers detonated car bombs near military and civilian intelligence facilities in the Kafr Susa section of Damascus. The death toll is at least 40 and will likely be higher as cleanup continues. Suicide bombing has not really been a part of the Syrian opposition arsenal. The location of the attacks, in an upscale section of Damascus, brings what amounts to a civil war home to Syria's capital city. Residents who felt insulated from the violence occurring in other cities around Syria are now faced with the possibility of escalating violence in their own backyard.

Of course, the Syrian government has reiterated its dubious claims that the violence and protests are the work of "terrorists backed by foreign powers trying to topple the state." I am not sure which foreign power the Syrians mean, thought when they make these claims it is normally directed against Israel and the United States. When I served as the air attache to the American Embassy in the early/mid-1990s, every Syrian function to which I was invited included a diatribe against Israel and U.S. foreign policy. It got tiresome.

Israelis I have spoken to about this issue are adamant that the violence is not the work of the Israeli intelligence services. Israel, along with many moderate Syrians and the few remaining Christians and Jews in the country, is concerned that the removal of the al-Asad regime will usher in an Islamist government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood - with good reason. The primary groups attempting to force Bashar al-Asad to step down is the Syrian National Council which is controlled by the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel believes that even with al-Asad in power, Syria can be deterred from a confrontation with Israel, despite its alliance with Iran, who conversely cannot be deterred. In any case, Israel can deal with al-Asad; an Islamist state might pose a greater threat.

Perhaps the "foreign powers" the Syrians mean are the Turks. The Syrian National Council is headquartered in Istanbul and supported by the Islamic party that dominates the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has espoused Islamic ideals in Turkey - such as proposing to allow women to wear the hijab (headscarf) in government offices, and curtailing the rights of women in what has been a secular Turkey. It stands to reason that the Erdogan government would support an organization that hopes to convert secular Ba'th Syria to a more Islamic government and society.

The Syrian government's claims notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the country is devolving into civil war. The battle lines are still fluid, but in general you find the moderate Sunnis, many of the Christians, the Druze and the minority 'Alawis supporting the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Make no mistake - most of these constituencies differ politically with the al-Asad regime, but sometimes it is the better to keep the devil you know. The only thing these groups have in common is that the fear that a post al-Asad government will be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, threatening the secular society that the Ba'th Party has built over the last almost five decades.

On the other side, the opposition includes many Syrians who want to end the rule of the Ba'th Party and the 'Alawi minority. Unfortunately, they have been subjugated to the Islamic-leaning factions,including the Muslim Brotherhood. The level of violence in the country rivals that of the attack on Hamah in 1982. Although many more people were killed in that massacre, the present confrontation is much more widespread and has the additional element of attracting deserters from the armed forces. This is the closest Syria has been to civil war since its founding.

The world has been vocal in its condemnation of the Syrian regime for its brutal repression of its citizens, while the United Nations has been largely silent. It would appear that the UN is wary of creating the conditions for military intervention as was done in Libya earlier this year.

"We're not the Libyans"

In response to any potential military operations against it, such as a no-fly zone to prevent the continued use of fighter aircraft and attack helicopters against demonstrators, Syria has broadcast a series of military videos on both Syrian and Russian television. Supporters of the regime have posted the videos on the internet, including Facebook and You Tube. The videos are well-made and showcase a wide range of Syrian military hardware in live fire exercises. From my attache days, the level of information released in these videos is astounding to me. The Syrians are extremely sensitive about releasing any information on their military capabilities.

Here are television broadcasts of Syrian combined arms live fire exercises:

Why the sudden release of Syrian military videos? Simple - the Syrians are telling the world that intervention in Libya is one thing; intervention in Syria would be quite another. They have a point - the logistics involved in mounting a no-fly-zone in Syria would be challenging, especially with no more American forces in neighboring Iraq. Using Israeli bases is out of question. Turkey, a NATO ally, would be key to any successful operation, but I don't see that happening at this time. Carrier-based aviation will not be adequate.

Unless there is sufficient international pressure, be it diplomatic, economic or in the last resort, military, it does not appear that Bashar al-Asad is going to relinquish power. He has already demonstrated that he is willing to kill large numbers of his own citizens to maintain his regime.

Change from inside Syria will be difficult, but many Syrians seem willing to take the risk. The country is either in, or soon will be, a civil war. The question we need to be addressing: do we assist the opposition and by doing so possibly helping usher in an Islamic government?