Some notes on Syria

On this blog we focus on Egypt a lot because we live in Cairo. But it should be remembered that what's happening in Syria is way worse. Here are a few links.

✪ Robin over at Pulse looks at various journalists' coverage of Syria and the problems with thier methods, especially the execrable nativist views of Joseph Massad.

✪ Patrick Seale — often considered too supportive of the Assad regime — calls fora BRIC contact group on Syria, which might have been a decent idea earlier in the crisis but even then ignores that Russia has blindly supported the Assad regime, China less openly but just as thoroughly, and the other states not shown a great deal of interest:

Syria needs the intervention of a high-powered, neutral, contact group to stop the killing on both sides. There must be a pause in which tempers are cooled, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations are halted, and a climate created in which a real dialogue can take place and real reforms agreed and implemented. The aim must be a peaceful transition to a different sort of regime, with effective guarantees for all sides.

The Arab states and the western powers are ill-suited for this task. The latter are not trusted. Too many of them have taken sides. The US, in particular, has been discredited by its blind support for Israel. Rather than bringing peace, Washington's spectacular failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, or indeed its own 32-year conflict with Iran, has prepared the ground for future wars.

Who then could form the necessary contact group? My choice would be the Brics: Brazil, Russia, India and China — countries with real economic and political clout and a strong interest in the region.

✪ Crisis Group has a new report, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics:

The Syrian crisis may or may not have entered its final phase, but it undoubtedly has entered its most dangerous one to date. The current stage is defined by an explosive mix of heightened strategic stakes tying into a regional and wider international competition on the one hand and emotionally charged attitudes, communal polarisation and political wishful thinking on the other. As dynamics in both Syria and the broader international arena turn squarely against the regime, reactions are ranging from hysterical defiance on the part of its supporters, optimism among protesters that a bloody stalemate finally might end and fears of sectarian retribution or even civil war shared by many, through to triumphalism among those who view the crisis as an historic opportunity to decisively tilt the regional balance of power.

Yet, almost entirely missing is a sober assessment of the challenges provoked by these shifts and the very real risk that they could derail or even foreclose the possibility of a successful transition. In particular, five issues likely to shape events have been absent from the public debate:

  • the fate of the Alawite community;
  • the connection between Syria and Lebanon; the nature and implications of heightened international involvement;
  • the long-term impact of the protest movement’s growing militarisation; and
  • the legacy of creeping social, economic and institutional decay.

A few notes from the report itself (the good stuff is always inside in these reports):

For over eight months, the regime was so obsessed with the desire to contain, defame and quash peaceful demonstrations that it let just about everything else go to waste. It failed to develop any discernible economic strategy to enable it to carry out a sustained struggle; instead, it steadily drew down its reserves, alienated the business establishment and exposed ordinary citizens to worsening hardships. Remarkably, it did nothing to prepare itself for highly predictable sanctions on oil and gas. Electricity cuts have become endemic, even in central Damascus; there are shortages of heating oil and cooking gas; and the price of basic foodstuffs is rising dangerously. The regime invested the bulk of its efforts toward shoring up the Syrian pound, but as the political crisis deepens, those too sooner or later will prove inadequate, precipitating a much deeper economic crisis.

. . .

Assad has registered only two achievements, albeit highly ambivalent ones. First, the regime in effect took the Alawite minority hostage, linking its fate to its own. It did so deliberately and cynically, not least in order to ensure the loyalty of the security services which, far from being a privileged, praetorian elite corps, are predominantly composed of underpaid and overworked Alawites hailing from villages the regime has left in a state of abject underdevelopment. As unrest began, the regime staged sectarian incidents in confessionally-mixed areas as a means of bringing to the surface deeply-ingrained feelings of insecurity among Alawites who, in centuries past, had been socially marginalised, economically exploited and targets of religious discrimination. To stoke fear, authorities distributed weapons and bags of sand – designed to erect fortifications ‒ to Alawites living in rural areas long before any objective threat existed; security services and official media spread blood-curdling, often exaggerated and sometimes wholly imaginary stories of the protesters’ alleged sectarian barbarism.

. . .

The regime’s second ambiguous success was in compartmentalising its territory. Denied both mobility and control of any symbolically decisive space (notably in the capital, Damascus, and the biggest city, Aleppo), the protest movement failed to reach the critical mass necessary to establish, once and for all, that Assad has lost his legitimacy. Instead, demonstrators doggedly resisted escalating violence on the part of the security services and their civilian proxies in an ever-growing number of hotspots segregated from one another by numerous checkpoints. Within each of these separate locations, security forces turned their firepower against uncomfortably large gatherings, stalked local leadership figures, seized tools used to communicate with the outside world and resorted to collective punishment ‒ in some instances carrying out such gruesome scare tactics as returning victims’ desecrated bodies to their families.

. . .

Rather than abruptly fall, the regime could well endure for a considerable time even as it continues to both erode and mutate, spawning die-hard, nihilist militias. In several recent interviews, Assad essentially pledged to go down fighting. He will not do so alone. Military defections aside, and notwithstanding significant discontent within the security services and the power structure itself, the regime retains considerable manpower. That support base is being radicalised even as it narrows. It is being reorganised around a hard-core composed of ruling family members and loyalists whose determination to fight has only heightened as their involvement in months of gruesome repression has grown, diminishing chances of a palace coup. The most extreme elements among the regime’s civilian proxies ‒ disparagingly referred to as shabbiha – reportedly have been creating their own battalions, whose fanaticism instils fear in less committed troops.

. . .

More generally, many regime supporters are terrified about their future and thus liable to resist till the bitter end. A majority of Alawite officials, security officers and ordinary citizens, along with segments of the Christian community and some secularists, have become convinced that their fate is either to kill or be killed.

Alawites at least are not entirely mistaken. Although the regime has been infinitely more sectarian than the protest movement, and although it clearly bears responsibility for exacerbating and exploiting sectarian feelings, reality gradually has been catching up with fiction. There is every reason to fear that, regardless of how the situation unfolds, Alawite villages whose residents have been most actively involved in repressing demonstrators – such as Rabi’a on the outskirts of Hama and Qabu in the hills overlooking Homs – could well witness large-scale retribution

. . .

A major economic crisis also is looming, with ruinous consequences for the future. The regime almost certainly will empty state coffers in order to hold on to power as long as possible. Meanwhile, international sanctions are bringing business to a virtual standstill, generating growing unemployment. As the price of imports rises and local production is disrupted, Syrians find it harder to obtain commodities, including medicine and milk powder. As businessmen and citizens scramble to protect their assets, banks are being weakened. Sanctions, however narrowly focused, inexorably contribute to a vast economic downturn. Even assuming a quick resolution of the political crisis, a socio-economic one almost certainly will take centre stage.

✪ On that last point, I recently reviewed Andrew Tabler's book on Syria, In the Lion's Den, which focuses a lot on the economy. The following passage refers to the book but is also informed by conversations I've had with Syrian dissidents:

In the Lion's Den does not deal with the Syrian uprising, having been written mostly before the Arab Spring erupted. But it does offer some insight not only into Syrian diplomacy and the regime's twisted thinking, but also the broader social and economic challenges the country faces. In the epilogue, Tabler suggests that while Damascus is a hard read, the economy could be the key to its undoing.

In recent years, Syrian oil production, a major source of income for the regime, has sharply dropped as consumption of fuel and electricity rose. A mounting sanctions regime and western political pressure pushed Syria into opening its economy to Turkey, which helped it gain important political support for a while but also caused massive displacement in the domestic economy, with superior Turkish goods pushing out Syrian manufacturing and empowering traders in Aleppo at the expense of small factory owners in Homs. Corruption and flawed privatisation presented as reform empowered regime cronies such as Rami Makhouf, Assad's brother-in-law, generating widespread resentment from the business elite.

The targeted sanctions that have been imposed in recent months have focused on these weaknesses, draining Syria's state coffers by allowing imports and preventing their replenishment by making it more difficult for Syrian businesses to interact with the outside world and export oil. Some Syrian activists hope the economic crunch the regime will inevitably face when, for instance, it is no longer able to pay civil service salaries, will mark the point when the state bureaucracy will join the rebels.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.