Seismic Shift in Syria is on the Horizon
A seismic shift in Syria is on the horizon, and a new phase is beginning to formulate, that is becoming more and more evident as events unfold in this once secretive and calm land. There is anticipation, ahead of the president’s key speech reportedly anytime now, of what it may herald for this country and it’s people. Most are expecting it to be concessionary and conciliatory, a Mea Culpa akin to Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s (defeat speech?), instead of the victory parade turned disastrous debacle played out in front of the parliament on March 30th. Many see the writing on the wall more clearly now. The shedding of the corrupt billionaire business man and cousin of Bashar’s Rami Makhlouf was an overtly obvious sign of the start of this tumultuous shift, to be followed perhaps by Bashar’s own brother Maher. The very figures the west and Turkey singled out as being the forces holding back the “reformer” Bashar from making the much needed and necessary move from an autocratic to a democratic and inclusive regime in Syria. This move was, in their view, the only way to avoid a destabilizing conflict which could have wide reaching ramifications for the entire region, not to mention a grave matter of national security for Turkey, Syria’s powerful neighbor and a member of NATO, fearing a resurgence in Kurdish separatist activity and a mass influx of refugees. The statements coming out of western leaders corroborated this, Clinton called Bashar a reformer, and initially sanctions did not target the president himself.
An orderly transition therefore was agreed upon not violent change, overseen by Bashar himself, the only figure within the Syrian regime who commanded any measure of respect and loyalty from the populace due to the cult of personality perpetuated by the Baathist system, a relic of the soviet era style politics which the Baath itself had been formulated from, and continued to preserve. Except that the call fell on deaf ears in the beginning and Assad didn’t play ball. At the outset of the uprising, Turkey sent a top security official to advise Bashar to start implementing concrete change immediately. It sent many more during the course of the following weeks, culminating in what was seen as the final ultimatum, given to Bashar’s envoy, Turkmani when he visited Ankara 2 days ago. It seems Bashar’s regime has finally gotten the message, it had to sacrifice parts of itself by shedding some “undesirable elements”, and start the long and painful transition process into a more pluralistic system, otherwise it would face military intervention in the form of an armed resistance harbored, armed and protected inside it’s own borders via a Turkish declared “buffer zone”. A Benghazi style rebel city would be setup which would draw fighters and army defectors from all parts of Syria, and a conflict which would inevitably lead to the fall of the Assad regime would erupt. For a while now the U.S has been sending messages that it was in contact with top military generals, looking for a way out of the crisis. Contrary to popular belief, this contact wasn’t intended to push them to revolt against Bashar, it was to prompt them to close ranks with and support him as he undertook to cleanse his regime from powerful members of his own family and clan, a dangerous move by all calculations. It seems that the hardliners in the Syrian regime have lost. They’ve had their chance to crush the revolt, and after 3 months they’ve failed miserably and the uprising has spread and manifested itself into an international refugee crisis.
So How did we get here? Why did Bashar change his mind?
The west has been calling on Bashar to make reforms or get out, Turkey has sent high level delegations to persuade him to make that move to no avail, until now that is. So why now? Why the sudden change in the regime’s thinking? Bashar was never a true reformer at heart, everyone knew that. He’s been at the helm for 11 years and was perfectly happy keeping the status quo he inherited from his father just the way it was thank you very much. He even stated himself several times, that Syrians were not ready for democracy, and will not be for another generation.
But what caused this shift? What has changed since march 30? Well in short, a lot has. Mainly that the security operation, in which troops and security forces were given a free hand to crush the protests in what ever way they saw fit (which could only mean unbridled violence of course) has failed dramatically after 3 months and 1300 civilian dead. In fact it has had the exact opposite effect. Fanning the size and scope of the uprising throughout Syria, and turning several thousand disgruntled tribal elders and their followers in Daraa, into a million man mass movement for regime change across the entire length and breadth of the country. The slogans which once called for freedom and dignity, have changed to calls for regime change and profanities and insults aimed at the president and his family, with special viciousness and vitriol directed at his late father Hafez. Pictures of the president, and statues of his father have either been torn down and destroyed by the protesters, or more tellingly, removed by the government itself. This in a country where only 3 months ago it was out of the question to speak out negatively even against a minor local official or post on your blog calling for reforms, not unless you liked being locked up in a “special jail” that is. But perhaps more worryingly for the regime, aside from the spreading protests and the mounting International pressure and isolation, are the accelerating defections by low level officers, in areas where regular army forces have been deployed to try to crush dissent. The Syrian army was structured by the late Hafez in such a way that made it institutionally weak and fractious to avoid the risks of coups. The pressure of subduing a revolting civilian population has began to tear apart a conscript army, with an officer corps made up largely of the Alawi sect to which president Bashar belongs to and entrusts with the higher echelons of power. Mutiny is the order of the day here, so the regime can only rely on 2 units whose loyalty is unquestioned. The republican guard, which in entrusted with the protection of the president and the sovereign institutions of power inside the capital (and therefore can not be deployed anywhere else), and the elite 4th division, made up of 20 thousand or so fiercely loyal, well trained and equipped troops commanded by the president’s own brother Maher and belonging almost exclusively to the same ruling Alawi sect. Thing is, you can’t control an entire country in open revolt, made up of 23 million or so very angry people, with 20 thousand men no matter how well trained and equipped they are. Which is why this very same 4th division has been deployed and moved around all over the country from Daraa in the south, to Qamishly in the north, on some sort of twisted pilgrimage of death and destruction. It’s stretched thin, and relies heavily on irregular armed loyalist militia(also from the Alawi sect) to keep order in many places it has to leave behind. So there we have it, Maher’s marauding 4th division and it’s annex of loyalist militia have not been able to restore order in restive towns and cities, despite using overwhelming force and have further antagonized and agitated an already inflamed population. More dangerously perhaps, due to the sectarian nature of those forces, has further raised the specter of inter-communal violence and sectarian civil conflict.
So now the security option has failed, what’s plan B?
Oh, there never was a plan B. Violent oppression of the revolt, coupled with relentless propaganda and a fierce campaign of intimidation was the only plan. It was thought to be the winning formula, after all, it had always worked in the past. Seems the Syrian regime learned nothing from the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Bahraini and Yemeni revolutions, and so repeated exactly the same mistakes, almost to the letter. The regime’s propaganda machine and media was woefully inadequate, sometimes to the extent of being comical. They were not taken seriously abroad, and none but the deeply loyal viewed them at home. The regime’s very strengths in the past (weak corrupt subservient public institutions which could not challenge the power of the ruling clique) had become it’s major weaknesses in the present. The Achilles’ heel of the regime, was the same foot that had carried it along quite comfortably all these years.
It’s the economy stupid
That too. A regime which can not pay the salary of it’s civil servants and troops, can not survive. Amid crippling sanctions, and a tightening noose around Syria’s exports of oil and gas, the economy is beginning to falter and will soon collapse. Tourism has been decimated, foreign cash reserves are being depleted at alarming rates to prop up the currency exchange rates, and internal trade has ground to a standstill amid localized disruptions to highways and roads. Foreign investment has been halted, and International companies are beginning to withdraw from ventures.The affluent Sunni merchant classes of Aleppo and Damascus which had until now been quite comfortable bed fellows with the regime are showing signs of breaking ranks as their money and businesses dry up.
For now, the regime is surviving on hand outs from uncle Rami, and Iran. Those are in not infinite and will perhaps extend a 3-6 month lifeline to the Syrian economy.
What comes next?
If Bashar pushes through with the painful and necessary reforms, sheds the dead weight of the nastier elements of his regime, and reigns in the security forces the country may yet avoid a destructive war, and get set on a path which will ultimately lead to a more just, free and pluralistic society (soft regime change). The alternative is conflict, and the violent overthrow of the regime, which may lead to regional instability, possible sectarian conflict and an uncertain and perilous future