The Syria end game

The Syrian uprising could be entering its final bloody phase. Prompted by the recent successes of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), discussions have turned to the question of how long Assad can cling to power.

Many observers, including myself writing in the article Syria – Observations as the uprising unfolds, expected a weakened Assad to regain control within weeks or months. It’s a remarkable testament to the tenacity of those who have taken the fight to Assad’s regime.

The uprising started as spontaneous mass demonstrations but were isolated to each city, town and village and coupled with very little co-ordination or central organisation, the protests unfortunately failed to dislodge Assad.

The regime has been able to regroup and hit back. Now nineteen months on, the price stands at almost twenty thousand dead, many fleeing their homes and the beginnings of inter communal violence.

The reaction of the Assad regime has been predictable, brutal and extremely violent. Assad’s stooges have been unable to learn that their use of violence has turned into its opposite. Far from cowing the population as it did in the past, it now enrages them, gathering more recruits to fight with the FSA.

The slow bleed of defections

The regime is being weakened by the slow bleed of defections of those sickened by the indiscriminate violence meted out to unarmed civilians. Support from its social base is also showing signs of draining away, increasingly disillusioned by the price they’re paying for the regime’s struggle to cling to power.

The euphoria of the FSA’s recent successes should be tempered with the caveat that this is not the rotted regime of Tunisia’s Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak where the basis of support had withered to a handful of regime cronies. Assad still enjoys significant social support from Alawites, Christians and the other minorities and will not be easy to topple.

From mass action to armed groups

We are witnessing the completion of the transition of mass popular action to civil war with a growing risk of sectarian violence. I pointed to this tendency of some uprisings to transform into military conflict in the article Libya – Lessons of the Uprising, and examined some of the reasons:

“The institutions that people would usually turn to during mass protest have been ruthlessly suppressed in countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. These same institutions, whether they be political parties or trades unions would also provide a pool of activists experienced in organising action. There was none of this available, nothing that could articulate the pro-democracy’s demands into the tactics and strategy necessary to carry the movement beyond its natural limits.”

One of the consequences of the civil war is the triggering of huge internal displacement. Anything up to one and a half million Syrians are internally displaced. An exodus from all the main cities has been reported since the attacks on Damascus and Aleppo. Watching a live video feed on the 23rd July from Aleppo, I was struck by the apparent absence of civilians. Other news reports tell of empty towns only populated by FSA fighters, another indication that the mass character of the uprising has passed to be replaced by armed groups loosely federated around the FSA and other groupings.

The armed opposition

The Free Syrian Army has become a catch all description for the armed opposition but not all groups are formally affiliated. For example, the groups following the Salafist jihadism doctrine operate more or less independently or under the guidance of foreign fighters and have their own resources. The FSA, are more dependant on Saudi Arabia and Qatar for funding and supplies and the weapons that defecting soldiers bring with them.

The fractured nature of the opposition means that in the event they achieve victory there is unlikely to be a significant period of coherent central control. With the prospect of the resulting instability combined with the nature of the FSA’s funders, it’s hardly surprising the Alawite and Christian communities have very little confidence in the FSA and their political allies the Syrian National Council (SNC).

Syria – The proxy battleground

Syria is of huge strategic importance in the region. In the words of a New York Times article, Syria is:

“…sitting at the center of ethnic, religious and regional rivalries that give it the potential to become a whirlpool that draws in powers, great and small, in the region and beyond.”

Map of Syria

The West and in particular the US sees the uprising as a chance to dislodge its Russian rival from the region and usher in a more pliant regime while at the same time further isolating Iran. This calculation is complicated by Turkey, which is now a regional power in its own right and is becoming more assertive in its regional ambitions and competing with both the US and Russia for influence.

UK epitomises cynicism of the west

The cynicism of the west is epitomised by the UK, on the one hand taking the moral high ground with its Foreign Ministry loudly proclaiming “Our positions is still the same. Al-Assad should go and be held responsible for his regime’s crimes,” but goes onto hedge its bets, “If the Syrian people reached a consensus on granting a pardon to the regime officials including President Assad, we are not going to object”. This statement also reveals the preference for a new government made up of the known quantity that are the current regime officials.

Recycling the old regime

The US foreign-policy think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace addresses the difficulties of recycling the Assad regime :

“What will happen to senior state officials, government ministers, top-ranking civil servants, and Baath Party members? Is there any reason to expect that they will facilitate the transfer of power without prior political arrangements and assurances?”

The fact is that there is little possibility of a regime based on its old officials, there are too many with blood on their hands. Unlike in Libya those officials that have abandoned the regime haven’t defected, they’ve have simply melted away over the border. Ethnic tensions would also play a part, the highest positions in the state are reserved for the Alawites and Christians with the majority Sunni confined to the lower echelons. It’s doubtful whether the Sunni would continue to tolerate this imbalance.

Western concern over chemical weapons illustrates the dawning realisation of the potential fall out from the collapse of the Assad regime. Though concerns over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons may be justified, a degree of skepticism should be exercised as these can also serve as a useful foil for intervention as the west did in Iraq.

Russia and China

Russia has had to play a much more delicate game but is no less cynical in defending its interests than the west. It’s Foreign minister Lavrov plays the game of honest broker but Russia’s interests says otherwise. Their naval base at Tartus is their only base outside Russia and Russia enjoys a near monopoly of arms trade with the Syria regime which was worth at least $4 billion in 2011. With the exception of Iran, Russia has no major influence in the region and so will not abandon its friend Assad without a fight.

China has spreading influence on the economic front. Politically they don’t want to be seen turning on potential allies, dictator or not. A friend to dictators everywhere it claims its aim is to play a “positive and constructive part on the Syrian crisis. Their record in Africa where operating on the principle of not drawing “…lines according to ideological differences” shows that China’s influence is baleful rather than positive. China’s main goal in this instance will be to prevent further extension of the US sphere of influence.

The western military intervention in Libya that led to regime change has given Russia and China a cover of legitimacy in vetoing the Chapter seven UN resolution put forward by UK, US and France. No credence should be given to any of the arguments from the security council powers on these resolutions, it is merely the diplomatic side of their jockeying for influence.

What next for Syria?

Buoyed by the audacious attacks of the FSA, though tempered by subsequent setbacks, and the FSA’s apparent transformation into a co-ordinated viable fighting force, attention is focusing on what comes next. Discussions have turned to the aftermath of the Assad downfall, the problems of sectarian violence, regional instability, the influx al-Qaeda fighters and the prospect of chemical weapons falling into their hands.

An interesting point of note is that one of the consequences of the NATO intervention in Libya was the growth in the influence of al-Qaeda affiliated groups. This has led to these groups making gains which have resulted in the de-stabilising of north African countries such as Mali. It’s widely acknowledged that al-Qaeda will benefit from regime change in Syria as it did with Libya and Iraq. One can only conclude that the west considers this ‘collateral damage’ to be a price worth paying…

The spectre of sectarianism

France sowed the seeds of present day sectarianism, although this sectarianism is ultimately rooted in centuries of extreme repression, when Syria was a French Mandate between 1920 and 1946. Following a policy of divide and rule they encouraged the impoverished Alawites to positions of privilege, the French also engineered the autonomous state of Latakia for the Alawites that lasted for over a decade. A steady influx of Alawites into the armed forces, one of the few avenues that offered a decent income, eventually resulted in their over representation. This was to prove a vital springboard in the future.

The Alawite ascent was further cemented with the coup d’état that brought President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, to power in 1970. This has enabled the key levers of state to be consolidated into the hands of an Alawite elite.

Though the ingredients of sectarian violence were present, it was not necessarily inevitable. In the article Libya – Lessons of the Uprising I explained that:

“In extraordinary times mass struggle can overcome and cut across the barriers of sectarianism. In all the Arab uprisings, the people have been at pains to emphasis their unity across race and religious lines.”

In first weeks of the uprising, the natural support base of Assad were noticeable by their absence from the streets, showing perhaps that the relationship is more a marriage of necessity.

There are many examples of the instinctive reflex on the part of activists to forge unity across the communities, many Alawites have joined demonstrations and agitated against the regime.

Unfortunately, the failure of the uprising to pull all communities behind it has opened the door for sectarians on both sides to exploit the deep roots of prejudice.

Syrian National Council – paying lip service to ethnic unity?

The Syrian National Council, recognised as the main external opposition group, has played a lukewarm role in the fight against sectarianism. Their failure to condemn the speeches of opposition figures such as Maamun Homsi who threatened to wipe Alawites “out from the land of Syria” shows a willingness to turn a blind eye to bigoted rhetoric. Presumably the reference to ‘others’ in the National Covenant for a New Syria also means the Alawites, they are not mentioned by name anywhere in this fine sounding document despite being around 12% of the population. This absence of an explicit mention can surely only confirm the suspicions of a fearful Alawite community who after all are regarded as heretics by sections of Sunni.

The SNC risks leaving itself open to the accusation that it pays lip service to ethnic unity to appease its western supporters. The opposition generally, riven by religious and ethnic splits, have shown themselves incapable of persuading the Alawites and Christians that they are a credible alternative to the Assad regime.

Not all of the minority Alawite and Christian communities enjoy the same economic privileges, many in their day to day lives have more in common within their Sunni brethren than with the privileged business and political classes. Poverty is as widespread among the Alawites, (for whom social mobility is usually only possible via the military or the Ba’ath party), as it is the Sunni. It was the failure to win over this section, the rural poor and the working classes of the cities, that has set the course to sectarian strife.

Balkanisation of Syria

There is discussion of Syria fracturing into sectarian enclaves. However, any attempt to establish enclaves is complicated by the inter mingling of communities. Even in the Alawite heartland of Latakia province the Sunnis make up 50% of the population.

At present there is very little support for the ‘Balkanisation’ of Syria but blood letting by the Salafists, who regard the Alawites as heretics, or the Alawite Shabbiha militia would of course raise the spectre of ethnic cleansing. We’ve witnessed the first signs of this with the Houla Massacre and attacks against the Christian minority.

It may seem most likely at this stage that Assad will fall, however, it can not be ruled out that Assad survives even if his area of control is reduced to an ethnically cleansed Alawite enclave.

Reaping the rewards…

US president Barak Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union Address, said “How this incredible transformation will end remains uncertain. But we have a huge stake in the outcome.” The main reward the US seems likely to reap is a strategically important country racked by inter communal violence. This violence will inevitably spill over Syria’s borders, into Lebanon, Jordan, the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey. Israel will not escape the fall out either, already there have been incursions of Syrian troops into the Golan heights.

The civil war in Syria has entered a new and decisive phase but is still too chaotic to predict in spite of the confident predictions of Assad’s downfall from some quarters. There is very little the major powers can do to influence to outcome, other than supplying arms to their chosen protagonist.

The aim of the major powers from this point on can be simply summed up as a fight for the ‘spoils of war’.

Gary Hollands – July 30th 2012.


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Greece – Will there be a coup?

Such is the depth of the financial crisis in Greece that the replacement of Greek generals by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou was enough to set off speculation of a coup d’état plot.

Though the speculation is understandable given the recent history of Greece, what is the likelihood of a coup? Would a coup succeed?

While it’s possible that there has been chatter amongst the ‘Colonel Blimps‘ of the Greek military, this is Greece 2011 not the Greece of 1967.

Any coup attempt would be met with fury by the Greek masses who are well organised and determined. Soldiers, themselves and their families facing deteriorating living standards, would have little incentive to support the generals. After all, what can these Generals offer that is any better than austerity with hobnailed boots? These reasons alone are enough make a coup attempt look very unlikely.

There is no doubt that Greece is entering new and deeper stage of crisis and instability. In the face of this crisis the Greek elite are suffering from vacillation and indecision. They lurch from one idea to the next, should there be a referendum or not? Should there be early elections or not? Should there be a government of ‘National Responsibility’ or not? All of these dilemmas are reflected in the splintering and infighting of the main political parties.

It looks to be only a matter of days before the Papandreou government falls. Unfortunately, there appears little in the way of a viable alternative from organisations on the left. There is every chance a right wing government could be voted in as a punishment for the austerity programme imposed by PASOK on the Greek working and middle classes.

The opposition to austerity will not stop with a new government, whether it’s elected or a cobbled together coalition…

When Gaddafi falls – what next?

With the aid of a five month bombing campaign by NATO it would seem that the rebels are within touching distance of their aim to topple Muammar Gaddafi[1]. They have taken the towns of Zawiyah and Gharyan which are within a couple of hours driving distance of Tripoli and are reported to have taken areas of the capital itself.

Very few will shed a tear if and when Gaddafi is toppled, quite the reverse, there will be wild celebrations and not just in Libya. I myself will raise a glass to Gaddafi’s downfall…

After the celebrations the question will be, what next?

The key to this question is in the nature and the make up of the rebel forces. They are in the main a disparate collection from across the political and religious spectrum held together by the common aim of toppling Gaddafi. There is already a sign of what may come with the comments of a rebel to Reuters. It is interesting that the same concerns are now being expressed about the rebels that I outlined in the article Libya – Lessons of the Uprising. It’s worth noting that the Reuters article also uses the term ‘disparate’ in its description of the rebel forces.

It should be borne in mind that the rebels could not have won without the fire-power of NATO, their rebellion would have ended in Benghazi. Neither are all the rebel groups united under the Transitional National Council banner and those that are operate more or less autonomously. The death of Abdel Fattah Younes illustrates the difficulty facing the TNC in maintaining discipline among the rebel factions. All of this means that whatever replaces Gaddafi ‘s regime will most likely be weak and unstable.

The military victory for the rebel/NATO alliance is just the first stage of winning power in Libya. As with Afghanistan and Iraq there will be a breathing space, a ‘honeymoon period’[2], while the opposition is scattered, leaderless and demoralised. The outcome of this period depends on the new regime’s ability to deliver on the everyday necessities such as electricity, food, fuel and being able to provide security and jobs.

There is every chance that the rebels could split into their natural rivalries, whether religious, political or tribal. Gaddafi may have gone but the forces left behind may prove large and cohesive enough to coalesce into a significant opposition in a similar manner to the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Baathists in Iraq. Clearly, with this volatile mix, guaranteeing security will probably present the greatest challenge for post-Gaddafi Libya.

It would be a cruellest of ironies, having intervened in Libya to prevent the prospect of a failed rogue oil state on the borders of Europe, NATO through its rebel allies creates exactly that…

Gary Hollands – August 21st 2011.

*Update October 21st 2011: Yesterday, following a NATO air strike on his convoy as it was leaving Sirte, Gaddafi was captured and executed by rebels.

Notes and references

1. Caveats. As the situation is still very fluid, this article will be updated as new events are confirmed. The main conclusions however will remain.. For some further background please refer to previous articles, Libya – Observations as the uprising unfolded and Libya – Lessons of the Uprising. Apologies for the rough edges, spelling and grammatical errors, these are entirely due to my rushing this article.

2. This does seem to be a general feature with the overthrow of regimes that happen either wholly or partly with the direct military aid of external entities. This period can be as little as a few months as in the case of Iraq. I’ll expand on this subject at a later date.


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Yemen – Observations as the uprising unfolds

24th June: Saleh in his refusal to do the bidding of the GCC and the United States and instead gamble on challenging the uprising, very nearly paid with his life.
The assassination attempt illustrates the impasse that the uprising has reached. It has proved unable to unite all the opposing forces in Yemen society under one banner and programme. Now the initiative has passed to ex-Saleh allies and coup plotters within the Saleh camp.

In this respect, Saleh’s judgement of the opposition’s weakness was correct. The inability of the uprising the carry through the overthrow of Saleh has lead to tribal divisions coming to the fore. Stirring up sectarian divisions was a deliberate policy on the part of the Saleh camp, they are quite willing fight a civil war if that is what it takes to hold onto their power and privilege.

What makes this such a volatile and unpredictable situation is that the forces facing each other are unstable. The opposition is made up of an uneasy and fractured alliance of the youth, tribal leaders and defectors on the one side. On the other side are the Saleh forces who, having suffered splits and defections, still control the state apparatus.

In light of the doubtful return of Saleh, the most likely outcome is a deal stitched up between opposition tribal leaders and Saleh’s allies.

Such a deal though, would leave the mass of the protesters out in the cold with none of their demands satisfied. With the shortcomings of the protesters leadership there is a real danger that tribal division and sectarianism could fill the vacuum and take a hold in the protest movement.

With the pause in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the failure of the Libyan uprising and likely victory of Assad in Syria, it’s looking more probable that events in Yemen could take the course of civil war.

26th April: President Saleh of Yemen has found his position much more precarious than Assad’s in Syria. Suffering defections, the Yemen regime hasn’t remained as solid as that in Syria. With splits within his own ranks and the protests continuing unabated, Saleh has little room for manoeuvre. He has had to accept, in words at least, a proposal from the GCC to step down in thirty days, provided he’s given immunity for his crimes of course! The GCC has not acted out of concern at the loss of innocent lives, this is the same organisation that was invited into Bahrain to suppress protests there.

The motivation of the GCC, especially its principle member Saudi Arabia, is the twin fears of the contagion of protest and the breakup of Yemen into two unstable states. The opposition coalition groups have agreed to the GCC plan, including participation in a transitional government. This is in contradiction to the demand of the protesters that Saleh steps down immediately. The possibility of splits within the opposition would of course give Saleh a glimmer of hope, but only a glimmer.

With fewer cards to play than Assad, it does look probable that Saleh will be forced to step down eventually. Relief for his regime will be temporary though. Its structure will remain intact for a period, but it will be subject to the enormous pressures of the people on the one side and the regime’s beneficiaries on the other. In-spite of, or perhaps because of, the machinations of the west and the GCC, the result would still be instability. While events remain fluid, it’s not certain whether this instability would take the path of the fracturing of Yemen or a state structure so weakened that it would be virtually ineffectual. The Arab uprisings that have brought Yemen to this point still exercise a dominant influence on the Yemen protests. An upsurge in revolutionary action in Egypt for example, could still be powerful enough to completely alter the course of events in Yemen.

25th March: In Yemen, after weeks of protests the military has begun to split under the pressure. Tens of thousands have gathered in Change Square for the ‘Friday of Departure’ rally.