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Conflict in Syria


 “Egypt was lucky to have a low death toll during its uprising because it is a country of institutions, but if Syria revolts it is going to be a blood bath,” said a Syrian friend to me during the celebration of Mubarak’s ousting in February 2011. Back then, observers wondered which country will follow Tunisia and Egypt, and all agreed that Syria and Saudi will be the last two countries to revolt. But Syrians started the uprising a month later. After thirteen months of protests, the death toll exceeded ten thousand victims. The International Community eventually reacted to the inhumane situation and the Security Council unanimously adopted its 2042 resolution, ordering a ceasefire and authorizing an advance team to monitor such a ceasefire. On the other hand, Kofi Annan was appointed as a special envoy to Syria by the UN and the Arab League and he issued a six-point plan to move past the violence. Once the cessation of fire is appropriately implemented, the Security Council will immediately establish a United Nations supervision mission in Syria to monitor all relevant aspects of Mr. Annan’s plan.

This paper will argue that while a ceasefire will help deescalate the violence, which is a first step to end the conflict, the conflicting interests of the regional and international powers, the wide gaps between both demands, the un-ripeness of the conflict, and most importantly the inclusion of Bashar’s regime in Annan’s plan will ultimately result in the failure of reaching a peace agreement. The paper will start by giving a structural view of the conflict. This will be followed by the challenges that make reaching a peace agreement unlikely, followed by a few conclusions.

Conflict Structure:

Colonialism left Syria with multiple ethnic, religious and political divisions similar to Lebanon and Iraq. 74% of Syrians are Sunnis, including Kurds. 16% are Shia, including subgroups of Druze, Alawites, and Ismaile. Alawites is the largest non-Sunni population compromising roughly 11-12% of Syrians. A variety of Christian sects also comprise 10% of Syrians. The population is also divided ethnically into Arabs, Alawites, Kurds, Armenians and other ethnicities (Laverett). The conflict is too complicated to be described as sectarian violence or a civil war, although this is partially true. While the violence can be divided ethnically or religiously, it is not just a conflict over the identity or the religion of Syria. It is a conflict against an unjust balance of power where the regime utilized sectarianism to safeguard such balance and subsequently guarantee its prolonged existence. Thus the two main categories at war are either pro or against the current balance of power.

The first group encompasses the regime, the majority of the Alawites, Christians, and the state security apparatus. This balance of power was established by Syria’s former president Hafez Al-Assad and inherited by his son Bashar. Hafiz relied on three pillars for establishing his legacy: The first was the successful consolidation of all powers through the Baath’s extensive control over all political avenues, including the military, labor movements, and state institutions. The Baath’s takeover of power started indeed seven years before Hafez’s presidency, but Hafez managed to utilize it by eliminating opposition to the Baath . This was followed by the development of effective and coercive police state apparatus that ensured the repression of opposition through imprisonments, forced disappearances, and killings. The second pillar was the rule through an Alawites-led constituency. This was masterminded through the secularization of political and social life, gaining support from religious minorities, while persecuting Kurds who demand national self-determination. The regime also adopted Nasser’s populist land reform policies and coopted peasants and elite Sunnis within its constituency. The third pillar was the creation of a tenured group -outside the government- of individuals that oversee the executions of Hafez’ orders(Laverett). This power structure was manifested in the uprising. Alawites, Christians, and other groups give Bashar ardent support because of the fear of a rise of a historically marginalized majority. This support was evident in the graffiti that elite troops, and the regime’s civilian proxies known as shabbiha typically paint on city walls which include slogans such as “God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else”; “This country will be led by Assad or no one”; and “Assad [for president] or we will burn this country”(ICG). Finally, while the regime agreed to Annan’s plan of political negotiations, Syria’s ambassador to the UN emphasized that the UN mission must act within the limits of Syrian sovereignty, and refused any negotiation concerning president’s legitimacy; the ruling family’s role; or the security services.

As for the opposition, it is inaccurate to portray it as a strictly ethnic opposition; they are rather a political opposition against poor governance in provinces that the regime has neglected. The protests were strongest in marginalized cities like Homs and Deraa. Protestors were peaceful at the beginning, but as the regime escalated the crackdown, multiple members of the opposition were militarized. The opposition also included many military officers who defected from Bashar’s regime. Meanwhile, the regime reached out to certain groups to guarantee their loyalty, like traditional Sunni elites and the Kurds.  Bashar and the Kurds agreed that regime does not want unrest, and the Kurds do not want to be at the vanguard of the protests. As for Sunni elites, the authorities developed relatively effective relays through a combination of business political ties with proponents of mainstream Islam. Even the banned Muslim Brotherhood was almost absent from the protest movement, at least in its early stages(ICG). Yet, as the violence escalated, all sides were radicalized further. The main demand of the opposition is the fall of the current regime, which is a step to change the unjust balance of power.

Annan’s proposal emphasized a commitment to political negotiations, an UN-supervised ceasefire, guaranteed humanitarian access, the release of detainees, freedom of movement for foreign media, and respect for the right to peaceful demonstrations. Such a proposal is likely to deescalate the violence; an outcome aspired by all domestic, regional, and international powers. Moreover, the existence of thirty unarmed monitors will push both sides to use restraint, which is a practical step on the road to peace. Yet the plan fails to identify disincentives for breaking the ceasefire. In other words, it is as effective as the regime allows it to be. Nonetheless, the negotiations are unlikely to produce an agreement for the following reasons:

There is a huge gap between the demands of the protestors and regime concessions. The ultimate goal of the resistance is to change the balance of power, which starts by removing the current regime. The regime on the other hand is willing to run parliamentary elections, negotiate further reforms, as long issues of the president’s legitimacy; the ruling family’s role; and the security services’ behavior are as off limits. Trust between both sides is extremely low. Bashar paints the opposition as agents of the West conspiring against Syria, and the opposition does not trust a regime that used its heavy artillery against its citizens.

The conflict is not ripe for solution since both sides have been systematically radicalized by the regime’s actions. The regime did win a few battles by deploying elite units with overwhelming firepower against an ill-equipped and scattered insurgency. But this apparent success concealed deeper problems. The fighting came at a huge cost to civilians and, in its aftermath, security forces engaged in widespread abuse, further radicalizing more Syrians. This radicalization has made life easier for those within the leadership and security services with a vested interest in escalating repression; they understand that a political solution to the conflict would come at their expense, seeing as the regime would sacrifice them as scapegoats to preserve its own longevity.  As a result, the regime is fighting for its survival as well as their powers. Images from Ben Ali’s escape, Mubarak trials, and Qaddaafi’s death explain why a success of the uprising is equitable to a death sentence to the whole regime, especially after its dreadful attacks on civilians. The same radicalization happened for protestors who are constantly losing victims and recently militarized. Finally, another reason for radicalizing the side of the regime is the regime defectors who joined the protests. First, Bashar will work on punishing them to give a strict warning for those remaining to support the regime. Second, by defecting, the remaining regime is more radicalized since it was emptied of sympathizers to the protests, leaving the upcoming negotiations with slimmer chances of success. For all the above, Syria is an unripe, stalemate, radicalized conflict, where the voices of the extremists on both sides became the most popular views.

Only after the loss of thousands of Syrians, the regional and international powers found the will to act. The regional actors are divided into pro-Bashar voices, like Iran, and Hezbollah, and against Bashar, like Saudi and Qatar. Both sides view this conflict with lenses different from domestic actors; for them it is a fight over the hegemony of the Middle East, with Sunni Saudi and Qatar on one side, and Shia Iran and Hezbollah on the other. Syria just happened to be the current issue at dispute. The same actors played opposite roles during the Shia uprising in Bahrain. The Saudi army was deployed in Bahrain to end the uprising, and Iran was objecting on the basis of the right of Bahrainis to choose their government. In other words, both sides simply manipulate the conflict in Syria to further their regional goals, which reduces the chances of reaching a regionally supported peace agreement. Similarity, the U.S. is interested in neutralizing Syria and further surrounding Iran with enemies instead of friends, while China and Russia are interested in keeping U.S. opposition in the Middle East to keep its proxy leverage. In short, the gap between what is needed to be done in Syria and what major regional and international powers are willing to provide leads to organizational pathologies within the United Nations which further diminishes the chances of an agreement(Stedman).

            It is not clear how Annan will choose representatives from the insurgency to start the negotiation process, and whether the regime will have a say in whom to be invited to the table. The bigger threat to the negotiations, however, is the inclusion of the Bashar regime. The Bashar regime has systematically radicalized the conflict and its mere existence at the table will only radicalize the opposition further.  Moreover, the regime will not be able to deliver on promises of reforms because the government is incapable of leading reforms or negotiations due to the lack of institutionalism culture in Syrian governance. With a hollowed-out ruling party, obstructive bureaucracy, rubberstamp parliament, corrupt local government administration and unreliable military, Bashar ultimately was left only with the security services upon which he became ever more dependent. President Bashar himself admitted such limitations before the uprising in a 2004 interview saying that the government lacks the bureaucratic structure to develop serious reform initiatives (Laverett). How could it be expected that after such radicalization, the regime can achieve reform when the entrenched elite interests, weak traditional institutions and the dominant role of the coercive state apparatus  marginalizes components of the leadership that are open to reform.

For all the above, Annan’s plan is not sufficient to even establish a path for peace in the future. It is true that Annan could not possibly propose the ousting of the regime at the start of negotiations, it would have been rejected by Syria and its regional and international allies. Moreover, the United Nations does not have the authority to order the ousting. Having limitations on UN powers in mind, Annan drafted a plan that approximates what Syria can approve, not what the conflict requires. As seen earlier, the reform will not change the balance of power, nor is Bashar’s regime capable of reforms, assuming it has a sincere will. Yet, ousting the regime will definitely have another radicalizing effect on the regime’s constituents, who have a legitimate fear of retaliation. Yet, this does not change the doomed destiny of negotiations when including Bashar’s regime on the table.  

There is possible hope for peace if the negotiations succeed in incorporating the regime’s constituents instead of the regime itself. The reason for the ardent support of the constituents is because they do not see a future without Bashar. Beginning a dialogue about the future of Syria that is inclusive of all ethnicities and religious sects and that guarantees the protection of minorities and balanced sharing of power will definitely weaken the ardent support for Bashar and deescalate the conflict, giving more significance to the moderate voices instead of the extreme ones. This may not only change the constituents’ position, but also the security apparatus, Bashar’s only functioning branch of  government. They did show no mercy in efforts to crush the protest movement, but for the most part, their seemingly unswerving loyalty has been interpreted as a consequence of their makeup: their ranks are disproportionately composed of Alawites. Furthermore, their cooperation with Bashar’s orders to escalate the conflict was powered by the fear of ending as scapegoats for the regime. From the outset of the crisis, many of their members were themselves dissatisfied and hungry for change, especially when they themselves also suffer from economic stagnation just like the protestors. An officer estimated that three quarters of his colleagues felt some sympathy for the protesters. To date, this has not appeared to influence their behavior, but it is a reality that could well affect the conflict if these forces see a possible future without Bashar (ICG). The conflict is not about the identity of the state as many may think. It is the rise of a historically marginalized and persecuted population in the face of a regime that consists of nothing but a security apparatus. The regime has more international foes than allies. The only reason for the prolonged existence of such regime is the ingenious and complicated sectarian structure that was established by Hafez Alasad, and inherited by Bashar. Such structure was weakened by the economic stagnation Syrian suffered from over the past twenty year.

 Yet with the uprising, internal dissent was silenced by the radicalization strategy of the regime. The only practical way out is for the opposition to reach out for mid-rank regime officers and negotiate a deal on future power sharing agreements that will not favor any group and protect the rights of the minorities before giving power to the majority. Such an agreement has to be accompanied by long-term international pledges to aid Syria’s institutions and form a legitimate government. Failure to alter the balance will ultimately result in a civil war in Syria, due to the national forces unwillingness to cooperate and because the international actors are concerned with their short term interests, overlooking the fact that an unstable Syria will harm the region as a whole. Syria is another example where the International Community fails to end a conflict because of the flawed structure of the UN that shows no willingness or capacity to change a regime that lost its legitimacy, its capacity to govern, and turned against its citizens.





ICG, “Syria’s Phase of Radicalization,” 10 April, 2012

Laverett, Flynt “Inheriting Syria, Bashar’s Trial By Fire” Brooking Institution Press

Security Council, “The Security Council 6751st Meeting Briefing”

Stedman, Stephen john International Peace Academy, “Implementing Peace Agreement    in Civil Wars: lessons and Recommendations for Policy Makers”

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