Rev­o­lu­tion in Syria, By Rad­wan Zi­adeh

Turkish Review - - CONTENTS - DR. RAD­WAN ZI­ADEH Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor, Syr­ian Cen­ter for Po­lit­i­cal and Strate­gic Stud­ies

The re­sponse was im­me­di­ate and un­equiv­o­cal: Weeks af­ter the ouster of Tu­nisian dic­ta­tor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and mere days af­ter pop­u­lar protests spread across Egypt, Syria’s pres­i­dent in­sisted his coun­try would not be next. As­sad claimed his regime was ‘very closely linked to the be­liefs of the peo­ple’ and Syria was free of the ‘pol­lu­tion’ and ‘mi­crobes’ that had built up over decades of rule of ‘stag­nant wa­ter regimes’ else­where in the Mid­dle East1

Ini­tially Bashar al-As­sad’s pre­dic­tion ap­peared to hold true. An Egypt-in­spired “Day of Rage” protest planned for early Fe­bru­ary 2011 fiz­zled de­spite con­sid­er­able buzz on so­cial me­dia sites. 2 While the streets of other Arab cap­i­tals echoed with calls for democ­racy and re­form, Da­m­as­cus re­mained con­spic­u­ously silent.

Syr­ian au­thor­i­ties, how­ever, took the pos­si­bil­ity of do­mes­tic con­fla­gra­tion se­ri­ously. Se­cu­rity forces quickly and ag­gres­sively ended any pop­u­lar gath­er­ings in ma­jor cities, no mat­ter how in­nocu­ous. A Da­m­a­scene can­dle­light vigil in sup­port of those killed in the Egyp­tian rev­o­lu­tion was im­me­di­ately bro­ken up when a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual vaguely ap­pealed to “winds of change” to “sweep away in­jus­tice and shame.” 3 The big­gest demon­stra­tion of Fe­bru­ary, a spon­ta­neous 1,500-strong as­sem­bly in re­ac­tion to per­ceived po­lice abuse of a shop­keeper in the fa­mous al-Hamidiyeh Souk, ended when the min­is­ter of the in­te­rior showed up per­son­ally to ad­dress the pur­veyor in ques­tion’s griev­ances. 4 Other, smaller demon­stra­tions ex­press­ing sup­port for Egyp­tians and Libyans were bru­tally quashed by riot po­lice and, over­all, the vast ma­jor­ity of Syr­i­ans seemed un­will­ing to di­rectly protest against their govern­ment. 5 Whether be­cause of pop­u­lar fear of the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus or gen­uine be­lief in the grad­ual “de­vel­op­ment and mod­ern­iza­tion” Bashar al-As­sad had re­peat­edly promised his peo­ple since in­her­it­ing con­trol of the Syr­ian govern­ment from his fa­ther in 2000, the As­sad regime ap­peared to be well po­si­tioned to com­fort­ably weather the Arab Spring storm. 6


Fol­low­ing the ar­rest of 15 school­child­ren in Dara’a, a small city close to the Jor­da­nian bor­der, Syria was for­ever trans­formed. The young boys, seized by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties for aping rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in Tu­nisia and Egypt and spray paint­ing, “The peo­ple de­mand the fall of the regime” on the walls of a lo­cal school, were beaten and tor­tured. When the chil­dren’s par­ents begged for their re­lease, one lo­cal of­fi­cial was re­ported to have said: “For­get your chil­dren. If you re­ally want your chil­dren, you should make more chil­dren. If you don’t know how to make more chil­dren, we’ll show you how to do it.” 7 It was an in­sult the peo­ple of Dara’a re­fused to ac­cept. On March 18, thou­sands of pro­test­ers gath­ered at the al-Omari Mosque and marched at se­cu­rity forces, de­mand­ing the

re­lease of the chil­dren, greater po­lit­i­cal free­dom, and an end to govern­ment cor­rup­tion. When riot po­lice failed to stop the pro­test­ers’ ad­vance with ba­tons and wa­ter can­nons, mem­bers of the se­cu­rity ser­vices opened fire on the un­armed crowd with live am­mu­ni­tion, killing four and wound­ing a dozen. 8

Protests spread to the nearby towns of Jassem, Da’el, Sanamein and Inkhil, as the Ba’ath party head­quar­ters in Dara’a were burned to the ground. Hop­ing to quiet things down, the As­sad regime took steps to ap­pease the tribal lead­ers of the close-knit fam­i­lies in Dara’a. A del­e­ga­tion led by Gen. Rus­tum Ghaz­ala, then head of Syr­ian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence in Lebanon and a Dara’a na­tive, promised to bring those who had fired on pro­test­ers to jus­tice. Ad­di­tion­ally, state se­cu­rity re­leased the ar­rested chil­dren of tribal lead­ers and the govern­ment is­sued a de­cree cut­ting taxes and rais­ing state salaries. 9 But it wasn’t enough. The boys, hav­ing spent weeks in jail, were re­turned bloody and bat­tered, some miss­ing fin­ger­nails. This en­raged the cit­i­zens of Dara’a and the ranks of the demon­stra­tors swelled fur­ther. On March 26, protests spread to the coastal city of Latakia. In the wake of the clashes with se­cu­rity forces, 12 peo­ple were killed.


On March 30, Pres­i­dent As­sad spoke in a tele­vised ad­dress to the na­tion from the Syr­ian par­lia­ment. The speech was widely ex­pected to be con­cil­ia­tory in tone; many be­lieved the pres­i­dent would prof­fer a time­line for sig­nif­i­cant changes in govern­ment pol­icy, in­clud­ing an end to a four-decade-old emer­gency law ban­ning pub­lic gath­er­ings. 10 But, rather than take an ap­proach of re­ac­tionary ap­pease­ment, which had ut­terly failed to si­lence rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in Tu­nisia and Egypt, As­sad chose to dou­ble down, in­sist­ing in his speech that re­form would oc­cur, but at a de­lib­er­ate pace. The pres­i­dent re­peat­edly de­scribed the up­ris­ing as a “con­spir­acy,” an out­side plot to desta­bi­lize the coun­try. As­sad also de­clared that those protest­ing ini­tially had “good in­ten­tions” but were “mis­led” by “for­eign con­spir­a­tors” in­ter­ested only in spread­ing “chaos in the coun­try un­der the pre­text of re­form.” 11

Syr­i­ans re­acted poorly to this dis­missal of their le­git­i­mate griev­ances. Not only had As­sad re­fused to com­mit to a timetable for in­sti­tut­ing gov­ern­men­tal re­form, but, to add in­sult to in­jury, he had nei­ther apol­o­gized nor taken re­spon­si­bil­ity for the spilling of


Syr­ian blood. That week, af­ter Fri­day prayers, Syr­i­ans took to the street by the thou­sands in towns and cities across the coun­try. The bar­rier of fear had been bro­ken -- the Arab Spring had ar­rived in Syria. But the Syr­ian govern­ment had faced pop­u­lar re­volt be­fore.


From the mo­ment Hafez al-As­sad, Bashar al-As­sad’s fa­ther, seized power in 1970, dis­si­dents in Syria were sub­jected to a sys­tem­atic cam­paign of po­lit­i­cal ar­rests. Al­though ini­tially those tar­geted pri­mar­ily in­cluded po­lit­i­cal ri­vals from within the Ba’ath party, which had taken con­trol of the coun­try via mil­i­tary coup in 1963, Hafez al-As­sad’s se­cu­rity crack­down on dis­sent quickly ex­panded to in­clude all of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion. The takeover had, ac­cord­ing to Pa­trick Seale, “turned Syria’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal struc­tures up­side down.” 12 Syria’s new leader in­stalled trusted friends in ev­ery po­si­tion of power within the Syr­ian govern­ment. The Mus­lim Brother­hood, Syria’s main op­po­si­tion force at that time -- which had al­ready been locked in a strug­gle with the Syr­ian Ba’ath party since its rise to power a decade be­fore -- re­acted in protest, some­times vi­o­lently, and the As­sad regime in kind re­sponded de­ci­sively, uti­liz­ing se­cu­rity forces to bru­tally crack down on any and all brother­hood ac­tiv­i­ties.

Ar­rests in­creased con­sid­er­ably af­ter 1979, as the con­flict with the Mus­lim Brother­hood grew blood­ier. There was a wide­spread cam­paign of ar­rests against mem­bers of the Mus­lim Brother­hood and a law was passed (Ar­ti­cle 49) that pre­scribed the death penalty for any brother­hood mem­ber re­fus­ing to pro­vide doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence of with­drawal within one month. Ar­rests also in­cluded mem­bers of the in­de­pen­dent syn­di­cates (of lawyers, doc­tors and en­gi­neers) af­ter they de­clared a gen­eral strike in 1981 and called for democ­racy, free­dom, the prin­ci­ple of the rule of law, and re­spect for hu­man rights. These syn­di­cates were force­fully bro­ken up and many of their mem­bers im­pris­oned. When the Na­tional Demo­cratic Coali­tion, an al­liance of mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion groups, was es­tab­lished to ad­vo­cate the pur­suit of a mid­dle way be­tween sup­port­ing the regime and armed op­po­si­tion, the ma­jor­ity of its ac­tivists, too, were ar­rested. 13

Syr­ian op­po­si­tion ac­tiv­ity es­sen­tially evap­o­rated af­ter Hafez al-As­sad’s con­fronta­tion with the Mus­lim Brother­hood cul­mi­nated in the Hama Mas­sacre. In Fe­bru­ary 1982, the Syr­ian army laid siege to Hama, a brother­hood strong­hold, com­pletely en­cir­cling the city and not al­low­ing any cit­i­zens to en­ter or exit. What fol­lowed could only be de­scribed as a night­mare: As­sad’s forces bom­barded the city for a month, lev­el­ing en­tire neigh­bor­hoods and killing, by some counts, more than 15,000 civil­ians. A hap­haz­ard cam­paign of ar­rests quickly fol­lowed, dur­ing which close to 100,000 ac­tivists, op­po­nents, and even ad­vo­cates of the regime were im­pris­oned. To this day, hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions es­ti­mate that ap­prox­i­mately 17,000 peo­ple re­main un­ac­counted for. 14


Af­ter Hafez al-As­sad’s death in 2000 and the trans­fer of power to his son Bashar, the prospect for po­lit­i­cal re­form seemed the best in decades. In fact, in his inau­gu­ral speech, Bashar al-As­sad specif­i­cally men­tioned Syria’s “des­per­ate need [for] con­struc­tive crit­i­cism” and the im­por­tance of re­spect­ing the opin­ion of the “other.” 15 What fol­lowed would be­come known as the “Da­m­as­cus Spring,” as prom­i­nent Syr­ian in­tel­lec­tu­als, in­ter­pret­ing the pres­i­dent’s speech as tacit ap­proval for an open­ing up of free­dom of ex­pres­sion, be­gan gath­er­ing to dis­cuss

the need to re­ac­ti­vate Syr­ian civil so­ci­ety and push for ba­sic free­doms and demo­cratic re­form. 16 The au­thor­i­ties seemed to re­spond fa­vor­ably, re­leas­ing some 600 po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers (whose ex­is­tence be­fore their re­lease had never been ac­knowl­edged). Like-minded ac­tivists held count­less fo­rums for dis­cussing fur­ther plans for im­prov­ing Syria’s govern­ment, econ­omy, and so­ci­ety. But this brief pe­riod of free­dom of ex­pres­sion wasn’t to last. In hind­sight, it was clear that Bashar al-As­sad had used the first six months of his rule to con­sol­i­date his power -sup­port from out­side the regime would en­sure his hold within. With the Syr­ian govern­ment fully in the young leader’s grasp, the calls for re­form from Syr­ian ac­tivists be­came a li­a­bil­ity and, by the end of 2001, the ma­jor­ity of Syria’s most prom­i­nent dis­si­dents had been ar­rested. 17

In 2005 it ap­peared that, once again, Bashar al-As­sad was pre­pared to open up space for a na­tional di­a­logue on po­lit­i­cal re­form. At the June Ba’ath Party congress, the pres­i­dent sug­gested that the regime would re­con­sider the 1963 Emer­gency Law, pass a new po­lit­i­cal par­ties law, and tran­si­tion from a so­cial­ist to a “so­cial mar­ket” econ­omy. The rhetor­i­cal com­mit­ment to gov­ern­men­tal re­form in­spired the di­vided Syr­ian op­po­si­tion to is­sue a state­ment of unity. The “Da­m­as­cus Dec­la­ra­tion” was openly crit­i­cal of the regime; in it the op­po­si­tion de­manded the lift­ing of the emer­gency law, the in­tro­duc­tion of free elec­tions, and of civil and po­lit­i­cal lib­er­ties, and a so­lu­tion to the Kur­dish prob­lem. But, as it had done be­fore, the regime aban­doned po­lit­i­cal lib­er­al­iza­tion and ha­rassed and in­car­cer­ated op­po­si­tion lead­ers. 18


In light of the As­sad fam­ily’s his­tory of us­ing vi­o­lence to counter dis­sent, the govern­ment’s re­sponse to the Syr­ian “Arab Spring” should have come as no sur­prise. By the end of April 2011 (only a month af­ter Syria’s protests had be­gun), Bashar al-As­sad had run out of pa­tience with the demon­stra­tions. Al­though ini­tially re­spond­ing to protests with a com­bi­na­tion of vi­o­lent re­pres­sion and re­ac­tionary prom­ises of re­form (lift­ing the Emer­gency Law, grant­ing cit­i­zen­ship to Kurds -- who had pre­vi­ously been con­sid­ered “for­eign­ers” -- and cut­ting taxes), when pro­test­ers re­sponded with greater mo­bi­liza­tion, mil­i­tant voices within the regime won out. Ex­actly as his fa­ther had done in Hama be­fore him, As­sad de­ployed the Syr­ian Armed Forces with or­ders to shoot to kill, first in Dara’a, where the rev­o­lu­tion was born, but soon to much of the rest of the coun­try. 19 As the bru­tal vi­o­lence per­pe­trated against what the regime de­scribed as “armed ter­ror­ists” but who were in ac­tu­al­ity peace­ful demon­stra­tors grew, so too grew the size of anti-govern­ment protests. Hun­dreds of thou­sands demon­strated across Da­m­as­cus, Aleppo and Hama. 20

But the crack­down con­tin­ued. Syr­ian tanks laid siege to restive pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, in­clud­ing Dara’a, Baniyas, Homs, Tal­ka­lakh, Latakia, Ras­tan, Tal­biseh and Hama. The se­cu­rity forces de­ployed snipers on build­ings close to demon­stra­tions and used the no­to­ri­ous Shabiha Alaw­ite para­mil­i­tary units to in­tim­i­date, tor­ture, and kill pro­test­ers. Not all of Syria’s soldiers were happy to kill un­armed civil­ians in cold blood, how­ever, and, de­spite govern­ment or­ders to ex­e­cute any soldier re­fus­ing to fire on demon­stra­tors, news of con­scripts de­fect­ing from the army spread. 21 Then, on July 29, 2011, Air Force Col. Riad al-As’ad, along with sev­eral other of­fi­cers, an­nounced his de­fec­tion and the for­ma­tion of the Free Syr­ian Army (FSA). 22 In a video posted on YouTube, al-As’ad called on mem­bers of the govern­ment forces to “aban­don their mil­i­tary units” and join him in the cre­ation of “a na­tional army that can pro­tect the rev­o­lu­tion and all sec­tions of the Syr­ian peo­ple with all their sects.” The armed strug­gle for Syria had be­gun.


Not all of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion is armed, how­ever. From the be­gin­ning of the up­ris­ing, var­i­ous groups, coun­cils, com­mit­tees and coali­tions were formed to plan protests and sup­port Syria’s rev­o­lu­tion, both in­side and out­side the coun­try.

Syr­ian Na­tional Coun­cil

Formed in İs­tan­bul, Turkey on Aug. 23, 2011, the Syr­ian Na­tional Coun­cil (SNC) was de­scribed as “the big­gest and most sig­nif­i­cant op­po­si­tion group­ing in ex­ile, and the main point of ref­er­ence for out­side coun­tries that sup­port the op­po­si­tion,” be­fore be­ing sub­sumed by the Na­tional Coali­tion of Syr­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary and Op­po­si­tion Forces in 2012.23 It con­sists of fa­mous in­tel­lec­tu­als and hu­man rights ac­tivists from the days of the “Da­m­as­cus Spring” and the “Da­m­as­cus Dec­la­ra­tion,” but also in­cludes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from other op­po­si­tion groups and de­mo­graphic mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing the Mus­lim Brother­hood, the Na­tional Bloc (a group of prom­i­nent Syr­ian dis­si­dents that went into ex­ile fol­low­ing the Ba’ath coup in 1963), Kurds, Assyr­i­ans, lo­cal co­or­di­nat­ing com­mit­tees and in­de­pen­dents. 24 Al­though the SNC was formed to play a sim­i­lar role to Libya’s Na­tional Tran­si­tional Coun­cil, it found much less suc­cess than the or­ga­ni­za­tion that in­spired it. This can be at­trib­uted to dis­cord within the coun­cil it­self, which has been plagued with in-fight­ing, par­tic­u­larly on the is­sues of how best to sup­port the armed op­po­si­tion, Kur­dish mi­nor­ity rights, and the over-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Mus­lim Brother­hood and other Is­lamist fac­tions in the coun­cil.

Na­tional Coali­tion of Syr­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and Op­po­si­tion Forces

Cre­ated at the end of 2012 un­der in­tense in­ter­na­tional pres­sure, the Na­tional Coali­tion of Syr­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and Op­po­si­tion Forces re­placed the SNC as the of­fi­cial po­lit­i­cal voice of the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion. In­ter­na­tional back­ers hoped that this new body, con­tain­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives from lo­cal coun­cils in­side Syria and even mem­bers of the armed op­po­si­tion, would be a more in­clu­sive and ef­fec­tive en­tity than the SNC. How­ever, the coali­tion has strug­gled to co­a­lesce into an in­flu­en­tial force. Proxy po­lit­i­cal fac­tions, backed by Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar re­spec­tively, have made con­sen­sus build­ing within the body next to im­pos­si­ble. Ad­di­tion­ally, the coali­tion has named two dif­fer­ent Syr­ian in­terim gov­ern­ments in the last year, nei­ther of which has been able to pro­vide even a mod­icum of ser­vices in the ar­eas of Syria no longer un­der the con­trol of the Syr­ian govern­ment.

Lo­cal co­or­di­nat­ing com­mit­tees and rev­o­lu­tion­ary coun­cils

The lo­cal co­or­di­nat­ing com­mit­tees and rev­o­lu­tion­ary coun­cils make up Syria’s in­ter­nal grass­roots op­po­si­tion. The lo­cal co­or­di­nat­ing com­mit­tees were cre­ated for the sake of plan­ning, doc­u­ment­ing, and pub­li­ciz­ing demon­stra­tions against the regime and have lit­tle to no con­nec­tions to Syria’s pre-re­volt op­po­si­tion. 25 The more than 400 dif­fer­ent lo­cal com­mit­tees in Syria’s towns and suburbs make up the “back­bone of the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion,” but op­er­ate only on the most lo­cal of lev­els, so some 50 rev­o­lu­tion­ary coun­cils formed or­gan­i­cally across the coun­try to fa­cil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tion and plan­ning over larger ge­o­graphic ar­eas and ur­ban cen­ters. 26 And, al­though the grass­roots op­po­si­tion has in­creas­ingly played a sec­ondary role as the armed con­flict has es­ca­lated, lo­cal coun­cils are still in­stru­men­tal in co­or­di­nat­ing the ac­tiv­ity of civil­ian pop­u­la­tions, be it in anti-regime ef­forts, dis­tribut­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian aid, or pro­vid­ing med­i­cal and le­gal ser­vices. 27 Most Syr­i­ans look to the rep­re­sen­ta­tives in these bod­ies as le­git­i­mate lead­ers of the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion; how­ever, the state se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus re­mains too strong and ca­pa­ble, and the dan­ger for rep­re­sen­ta­tives and lo­cal lead­ers too great, for these coun­cils to co­a­lesce into some form of over­ar­ch­ing au­thor­ity.


Free Syr­ian Army

The FSA is not an “army” per se but rather the brand­ing un­der which the ma­jor­ity of the armed op­po­si­tion in Syria op­er­ates, con­sist­ing of a large num­ber of loosely co­or­di­nated lo­cal mili­tias, bat­tal­ions, and bri­gades. The char­ac­ter of these groups varies by lo­ca­tion. In some ar­eas, the forces con­sist en­tirely of de­fec­tors from the army; in oth­ers, lo­cal res­i­dents that have cho­sen to take up arms to de­fend their

fam­i­lies. 28 The FSA’s com­mand hi­er­ar­chy is much more hor­i­zon­tal than that of a tra­di­tional force. In fact, the lead­er­ship’s rel­a­tive iso­la­tion in Turkey has led to an al­most ir­repara­ble loss of cred­i­bil­ity on the ground. In­di­vid­ual mili­tias form tem­po­rary al­liances with neigh­bor­ing groups to plan op­er­a­tions and co­or­di­nate de­fense of ter­ri­tory. The for­ma­tion of the Supreme Mil­i­tary Com­mand in Novem­ber 2012 sought to fix these is­sues, so­lid­ify the com­mand and con­trol struc­ture, and unite the var­i­ous dis­parate forces of the FSA. How­ever, as the bat­tle rages on, this new at­tempt at or­ga­ni­za­tion has found limited suc­cess. 29


In­ter­na­tional re­ac­tion to the bur­geon­ing Syr­ian cri­sis was de­layed and dis­ap­point­ing at best. Al­though the US, the EU and other na­tions were rea­son­ably quick to con­demn the vi­o­lence, im­pose sanc­tions, and place travel bans and as­set freezes on the most no­to­ri­ous per­sons in the As­sad regime, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity could of­fer lit­tle else to sup­port Syria’s rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. At the United Na­tions, de­spite near con­tin­u­ous de­bate, the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil re­peat­edly failed to pass res­o­lu­tions crit­i­ciz­ing Syr­ian vi­o­lence. The Arab League took un­til Au­gust 2011 to is­sue a sin­gle state­ment crit­i­cal of the As­sad regime, but sub­se­quently im­posed sanc­tions on Syria and sus­pended the coun­try’s mem­ber­ship in the league in Novem­ber. Nei­ther ac­tion brought an end to the vi­o­lence, how­ever, and af­ter mul­ti­ple failed Arab League-bro­kered peace plans in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber 2011, the body de­cided to ask the UN to form a joint peace­keep­ing force to halt the vi­o­lence. 30

On Feb. 23, 2012, UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon an­nounced the ap­point­ment of for­mer Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Kofi An­nan as UN and Arab League en­voy to Syria. 31 For the next three months, much of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s ef­forts would be fo­cused on An­nan’s six-point peace plan, de­signed to ne­go­ti­ate a cease-fire be­tween the Syr­ian army and rebel forces. But the plan was doomed to fail; Rus­sia and China had blocked any mea­sures that would en­sure con­se­quences should the As­sad regime fail to im­ple­ment the plan and in re­al­ity the fight­ing hardly paused. 32

Even be­fore the col­lapse of the An­nan cease-fire how­ever, it was clear that var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional forces were im­ple­ment­ing fun­da­men­tally in­com­pat­i­ble for­eign poli­cies in Syria. Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Rus­sia, China the US, the UK and France were all spar­ring over the coun­try’s fu­ture.

The NATO-led mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Libya had left Rus­sia feel­ing hard done by and par­tic­u­larly un­will­ing to co­op­er­ate with any other Western ini­tia­tives in the Mid­dle East. Af­ter decades of Western wars and an Arab Spring, Rus­sia found it­self low on al­lies in the re­gion. Syria, home to Rus­sia’s only naval base in the Mid­dle East, would not be al­lowed to fall. Tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion lu­cra­tive arms deals (Rus­sia was re­pair­ing and up­grad­ing at­tack he­li­copters on the Syr­ian Air Force’s be­half even while func­tion­ing he­li­copters were bomb­ing civil­ian pop­u­la­tion cen­ters) and Syria’s spe­cial sta­tus as Rus­sia’s last bas­tion of in­flu­ence in a rapidly chang­ing Mid­dle East shows that Rus­sia’s re­ac­tive ob­sti­nacy at the UN has been, for Rus­sian lead­ers, a ne­ces­sity. With one eye on a restive Chech­nya, Rus­sia would sup­port As­sad’s govern­ment at all costs. Al­though the full ex­tent of its in­volve­ment re­mains un­known, re­ports sug­gest that the Rus­sian govern­ment con­tin­ues to sup­ply the As­sad regime with cash and mil­i­tary hard­ware, in ad­di­tion to diplo­matic sup­port. 33

China has pro­vided Syria with diplo­matic cover as well, though for slightly more opaque rea­sons. The Arab Spring fright­ened China, as it had fright­ened vir­tu­ally ev­ery na­tion with large im­pov­er­ished and dis­en­fran­chised pop­u­la­tions. But China’s ve­toes (and

in the case of Libya, ab­sten­tion) against res­o­lu­tions at the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil can pri­mar­ily be at­trib­uted to a long-held non-in­ter­fer­ence ide­ol­ogy. China’s lead­ers have con­sis­tently re­garded the Syr­ian con­flict as an in­ter­nal af­fair to be dealt with by the sov­er­eign govern­ment. To sup­port any form of in­ter­ven­tion would, ac­cord­ing to the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of China, vi­o­late the UN Char­ter (which does not grant states -- or in­ter­na­tional bod­ies for that mat­ter -- the right to em­ploy force in re­solv­ing in­ter­na­tional dis­putes) but also set a dan­ger­ous prece­dent un­der which the US or other na­tions could use in­ter­na­tional bod­ies to ful­fill geopo­lit­i­cal agen­das. 34 China will un­doubt­edly pay a fu­ture price for turn­ing its back on the Arab Spring; but, to Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy mak­ers, per­haps the cost has al­ready been off­set by a per­ceived in­crease in clout at the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and a strength­en­ing of the Sino-Rus­sian re­la­tion­ship.

For the Western pow­ers, the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion has seemed to be more of an in­ter­na­tional in­con­ve­nience than a for­eign pol­icy pri­or­ity. Al­though the US, the UK, and var­i­ous other states con­tinue to pledge and de­liver hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to sup­port the more than 2 mil­lion reg­is­tered Syr­ian refugees liv­ing in camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, no Western coun­tries have com­mit­ted to a con­sis­tent and de­ci­sive ap­proach for end­ing the con­flict. 35 US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama de­clared as early as Au­gust 2011 that, “the time [had] come for Pres­i­dent As­sad to step aside” and yet, more than two-and-a-half years later, the regime is bat­tered but nearly wholly in­tact -- Western na­tions can claim no re­spon­si­bil­ity for any of the Syr­ian state’s grad­ual dis­in­te­gra­tion. 36 How­ever, for much of the con­flict, Repub­li­can hawks, in­spired by the suc­cess of the NATO-led in­ter­ven­tion in Libya, have called for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a no-fly zone across all or part of Syria in or­der to pro­tect civil­ians from in­dis­crim­i­nate bom­bard­ment and cat­alyze rebel ad­vances. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­mained adamantly op­posed to any such mea­sures. To US of­fi­cials, Syria, with its eth­nic mi­nori­ties, dense pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, and con­ser­va­tive coun­try­side, re­mains a for­eign pol­icy dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen, par­tic­u­larly in light of the hor­ri­ble US ex­pe­ri­ences in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus far, the ex­tent of of­fi­cial Western in­volve­ment, be­yond the pro­vi­sion of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid, has in­cluded the train­ing of dig­i­tal ac­tivists in the use of se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment (and the pro­vid­ing thereof) and the pro­vi­sion of some non-lethal aid to the armed op­po­si­tion (such as ready-to-eat meals and flak jack­ets). Fol­low­ing the chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks on Eastern Ghouta in Au­gust 2013, the US seemed the clos­est yet to en­gag­ing mil­i­tar­ily in Syria. How­ever, the US was will­ing to seize any op­por­tu­nity to avoid mak­ing such an in­vest­ment and ul­ti­mately agreed to a Rus­sian-bro­kered deal in which Syria would sur­ren­der its chem­i­cal weapons. 37 Ru­mors have cir­cu­lated of French in­tel­li­gence agents wan­der­ing through Syria bear­ing suit­cases re­plete with cash and CIA oper­a­tives co­or­di­nat­ing the arm­ing of rebels from of­fices in Turkey. But this ru­mored ac­tion, even if true, has hardly had a tan­gi­ble effect on the fight for Syria. Syria’s neigh­bors, on the other hand, have been much more in­ti­mately in­volved.

Since the start of the Arab Spring, Turkey, Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar have all strug­gled to de­cide what role they would play in the var­i­ous up­ris­ings of 2011-2012. In the Syr­ian con­text how­ever, all three na­tions have com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary forces. Turkey, which shares a 900-kilo­me­ter bor­der with Syria, has for much of the con­flict served as a base of op­er­a­tions for the FSA com­mand and wel­comed the pres­ence of po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion mem­bers in İs­tan­bul -- not to men­tion the hu­man­i­tar­ian bur­den that Turkey has borne pro­vid­ing safety and aid to Syr­ian refugees. Ad­di­tion­ally, both Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar have used Turk­ish ter­ri­tory to co­or­di­nate the fund­ing and arm­ing of rebel mili­tias, sup­pos­edly with the tacit ap­proval of the US govern­ment. 38 This sup­port of the armed op­po­si­tion, though on­go­ing, has not been as ex­ten­sive as some­times por­trayed. To date, the vast ma­jor­ity of the arms wielded by rebel fight­ers were ei­ther cap­tured from regime weapons de­pots or pur­chased on the black mar­ket. Nev­er­the­less, as the con­flict con­tin­ues, more and more weapons pro­cured by the Gulf states -- in­clud­ing anti-tank and anti-air­craft mis­siles -- are mak­ing their way into ar­eas of con­flict.

But the regime in Da­m­as­cus is not without re­gional al­lies. Iran has been a friend to Syria for decades, along with the Le­banese po­lit­i­cal party/para­mil­i­tary group


Hezbul­lah. Both en­ti­ties have ac­tively aided As­sad in his fight against the op­po­si­tion. Iran has pro­vided tons of mil­i­tary equip­ment (fer­ried through Iraqi airspace), hun­dreds of elite Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard “mil­i­tary ad­vi­sors,” 39 and ex­ten­sive tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance to the Syr­ian govern­ment in its ef­forts track­ing op­po­si­tion ac­tivists on the In­ter­net. 40 Like­wise, Hezbul­lah has sent thou­sands of fight­ers di­rectly into Syria to aid the regime. 41


Ini­tially, the FSA played an al­most ex­clu­sively de­fen­sive role in Syria’s rev­o­lu­tion. Small bands of lo­cal fight­ers, wield­ing weapons ob­tained through the black mar­ket or via de­fec­tion, main­tained a pres­ence at demon­stra­tions for the sake of pro­tect­ing civil­ians. Any of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions were small-scale raids on check­points or lo­cal se­cu­rity of­fices. In­sur­rec­tions in dis­tant, iso­lated towns, such as Jisr al-Shoghour in Idlib prov­ince, were met with harsh crack­downs by regime forces; rebel groups were con­stantly out­matched in train­ing, qual­ity of weapons, and sheer num­bers. For nearly a year fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment of the FSA’s for­ma­tion, one could de­scribe the armed con­flict be­tween the rebels and the Syr­ian army as a kind of guer­rilla war­fare game of “whack-a-mole.” Lo­cal mili­tias would swoop in on regime po­si­tions in towns and ru­ral suburbs, am­bush­ing them and tem­po­rar­ily hold­ing ter­ri­tory be­fore be­ing forced to flee by Syr­ian ar­mor and re­in­force­ments. This type of com­bat was promi­nently on dis­play in Jan­uary 2012 in Zabadani, a town a mere 30 kilo­me­ters from Da­m­as­cus. There, rebels man­aged to de­stroy a num­ber of tanks, and even hold the town for a few weeks, be­fore be­ing driven out by the Syr­ian forces.

This rebel at­tack, and ones like it, were be­gin­ning to take their toll. As FSA bri­gades grew in size and ca­pa­bil­i­ties, As­sad se­cu­rity forces be­gan to change tac­tics. Rather than risk be­ing con­stantly am­bushed in ur­ban war­fare, the Syr­ian army used ar­tillery to sur­round and bom­bard restive ar­eas. In Homs, Syr­ian ar­tillery laid siege to the Baba Amr neigh­bor­hood for weeks, caus­ing a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in which thou­sands were killed and wounded be­fore a fi­nal ground as­sault al­lowed Syr­ian soldiers to re­take the area at the be­gin­ning of March 2012.42

The armed con­flict con­tin­ued and the shift in regime tac­tics led to greater civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, most no­tably in the Houla mas­sacre of May 2012. Voices from both in­side and out­side of Syria be­gan to vo­cally de­mand an in­ter­ven­tion, or at least more com­pre­hen­sive arm­ing of the op­po­si­tion for the sake of bring­ing the con­flict to a hasty con­clu­sion.


It is un­de­ni­able that ex­trem­ist ji­hadi groups have played a role in the Syr­ian con­flict. How­ever, that role has been and re­mains on the mar­gins of the rev­o­lu­tion. Of the many rebels fight­ing in­de­pen­dently or un­der the banner of the FSA, it is es­ti­mated that less than 10 per­cent be­long to ji­hadi groups. This num­ber was much lower -- to the point of be­ing neg­li­gi­ble -- at the start of the con­flict, but, as the Syr­ian state re­ceded, more space be­came avail­able in which ex­trem­ist groups could op­er­ate, and their in­flu­ence has cer­tainly grown. It has taken time for ji­hadi fund­ing net­works to be ac­ti­vated in the Gulf; so too has it taken time for some for­eign fight­ers (not all of whom are Is­lamist) to trickle in from bat­tle­grounds else­where. For much of the con­flict, sec­u­lar mili­tias be­grudg­ingly re­garded the ji­hadi groups as a nec­es­sary evil -- per­haps even an as­set. But, in the case of Syria, can the en­emy of one’s en­emy re­ally be counted as one’s friend? As re­cently as Jan­uary 2014, na­tion­al­ist rebel mili­tias had be­gun a cam­paign against al-Qaeda linked groups in or­der to ex­pel them from the coun­try.

Jab­hat al-Nusra

Formed in late 2011, Jab­hat al-Nusra is the best known of the hand­ful of Is­lamist groups cur­rently op­er­at­ing in Syria. Al-Nusra has claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for a num­ber of high pro­file bomb­ings in Syria’s ur­ban cen­ters while also con­duct­ing mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions across much of the coun­try. Jab­hat al-Nusra is the of­fi­cial branch of al-Qaeda in Syria and its fight­ers are pri­mar­ily Syr­ian. 43 This is in stark con­trast to the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is con­sid­ered by many to be al­most en­tirely made up of for­eign fight­ers.


Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria

ISIS is a branch of al-Qaeda that first gained a ma­jor foothold in Syria in early 2013 when it be­gan cam­paigns to seize con­trol over the towns of eastern Syria. Since then, de­spite be­ing di­rectly or­dered by Ay­man al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, to de­mure to Jab­hat al-Nusra in the on­go­ing ji­had in Syria, ISIS has gained con­trol over large swathes of ter­ri­tory in north­ern Syria. 45 ISIS seeks to es­tab­lish an Is­lamic caliphate and, ac­cord­ing to ac­tivists, has rarely contributed to the fight against the Syr­ian govern­ment. Rather, ISIS has fo­cused on con­trol­ling ter­ri­tory, es­tab­lish­ing emirs as heads of lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tions, and at­tempt­ing to spread its ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy. 46

Is­lamic Front

The Is­lamic Front is a large and pow­er­ful al­liance of con­ser­va­tive Salafist bri­gades and mili­tias seek­ing the im­me­di­ate over­throw of the Syr­ian govern­ment. The Is­lamic Front con­sists of a num­ber of fa­mous fight­ing groups, in­clud­ing Suqoor al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jeish al-Is­lam and Liwa al-Tawheed, but no­tably does not have any mem­ber groups af­fil­i­ated with al-Qaeda and does not seek the es­tab­lish­ment of an Is­lamic caliphate. Be­cause of its strength on the ground (some an­a­lysts es­ti­mate it has over 45,000 fight­ers un­der its com­mand), some Western na­tions have reached out to the Is­lamic Front as FSA in­flu­ence di­min­ishes.


Start­ing in the sum­mer of 2012 and fol­low­ing the ut­ter fail­ure of the An­nan cease-fire (which was used as an op­por­tu­nity to re­group by both sides), the FSA went on the of­fen­sive, carv­ing out large lib­er­ated zones in the Syr­ian coun­try­side. On July 19, 2012, the bat­tle for Aleppo, north­ern Syria’s largest city, be­gan. At this point, the size and ef­fec­tive­ness of op­po­si­tion mili­tias had grown to such an ex­tent that Syr­ian govern­ment forces were rou­tinely re­ly­ing on fighter jets and he­li­copter gun­ships for sup­port. With the Syr­ian army strained and over­stretched and regime mil­i­tary com­man­ders un­will­ing to redi­rect too many troops away from Da­m­as­cus for fear of a ma­jor strike at the heart of the govern­ment, FSA forces made progress in Aleppo, seiz­ing con­trol of ap­prox­i­mately half the city. Across much of the rest of north­ern Syria, loy­al­ist troops could not travel without fear of be­ing am­bushed and over­whelmed. How­ever, for months these ar­eas re­mained dot­ted with regime-held mil­i­tary air­ports and bases from which Syr­ian ar­tillery and air­craft bom­barded rebel po­si­tions. Where be­fore regime forces would hunt down the per­pe­tra­tors of spo­radic at­tacks, the con­flict reached a stale­mate in which the Syr­ian Army lacked the hu­man re­sources to re­take rebel-held ter­ri­tory and neigh­bor­hoods, while the FSA lacked the mil­i­tary hard­ware and am­mu­ni­tion to con­duct a de­ci­sive death­blow against the hard­ened bases of the As­sad regime.

That stale­mate has con­tin­ued de­spite the cap­ture of a num­ber of im­por­tant bases around Aleppo, Idlib and Da­m­as­cus, and in­tense fight­ing in the Da­m­as­cus suburbs. 47 The FSA re­mains woe­fully un­der-armed in com­par­i­son to regime forces and the mo­men­tum of the con­flict does not seem poised to swing in any­one’s fa­vor.


The fall of the As­sad regime is in­evitable. One can­not imagine a path by which Syria could re­turn to the pre-con­flict sta­tus quo. And yet, the cir­cum­stances of the Syr­ian govern­ment’s ul­ti­mate col­lapse re­main nearly im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict. Al­though the armed op­po­si­tion con­tin­ues to force a slow con­trac­tion of the Syr­ian govern­ment’s sphere of in­flu­ence, the hun­dreds of mili­tias col­lected un­der the banner and brand­ing of the FSA (and those, such as Jab­hat al-Nusra and the Is­lamic Front, which re­main in­de­pen­dent) are united only in their de­sire for As­sad’s ouster, not in a com­mon vi­sion of Syria’s fu­ture. And, as lib­er­ated Syria grad­u­ally in­creases in size, the need for a le­git­i­mate, well-sup­ported and

cen­tral­ized au­thor­ity to di­rect rev­o­lu­tion­ary ef­forts and later han­dle the post-As­sad tran­si­tion will grow in ur­gency. Nei­ther the FSA, the in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion, nor the op­po­si­tion abroad have seemed ca­pa­ble of form­ing such an en­tity. The in­creased in­volve­ment of ISIS, which seeks nei­ther the re­moval of As­sad nor the preser­va­tion of Syria as a na­tion, fur­ther com­pli­cates the sit­u­a­tion.

Out­side of Syria, the UN re­mains a dead end thanks to Rus­sian and Chi­nese veto power on the se­cu­rity coun­cil. Nei­ther coun­try will sup­port any form of height­ened in­ter­na­tional in­volve­ment in the con­flict -- a po­si­tion stem­ming from a geopo­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy adamantly against the ex­pan­sion of Western in­flu­ence, as op­posed to the pro­tec­tion of more tan­gi­ble na­tional in­ter­ests in­side Syria it­self. Syria’s re­gional neigh­bors will likely con­tinue to sup­port their own prox­ies in­side of Syria. Turkey, Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar will pro­vide the cash, arms, am­mu­ni­tion and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port that has kept the FSA func­tion­ing. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, dis­tracted by do­mes­tic pol­i­tics and acutely cog­nizant of war-fa­tigue, will con­tinue to avoid be­com­ing mil­i­tar­ily in­volved in the con­flict at all costs. Cur­rent small-scale US pro­grams sup­port­ing ac­tivists will con­tinue in­def­i­nitely, de­spite mixed re­sults, and hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts will ex­pand slowly in re­ac­tion to the mass ex­o­dus of Syr­ian refugees. Mean­while, Iran will con­tinue to pro­vide the regime with arms, train­ing, and mil­i­tary ad­vice but will cer­tainly avoid cross­ing any line that would draw too much ire from the West -- the send­ing of thou­sands of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards to Syria would prob­a­bly not be tol­er­ated by Western pow­ers and could in fact so­licit a mil­i­tary re­sponse.

That be­ing said, there is a trag­i­cally be­lated sense in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is un­ten­able and that more co­or­di­nated in­volve­ment will be nec­es­sary to bring the con­flict to a con­clu­sion. To that end, many Western pow­ers, in­clud­ing the US, have pushed hard for a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the con­flict. This ap­proach has brought the US into con­flict with back­ers of mil­i­tary forces in­side Syria and also elicited dis­dain from the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion. They con­tend that the As­sad regime has been given no in­cen­tive to ne­go­ti­ate it­self out of power. To meet the govern­ment at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, par­tic­u­larly with a stale­mate on the ground, would only serve to el­e­vate the govern­ment’s po­si­tion and en­sure no so­lu­tion to the con­flict.

Re­gard­less of when the Syr­ian tip­ping point is ac­tu­ally reached, there are sev­eral steps that will clearly need to be taken fol­low­ing the cre­ation of a post-con­flict tran­si­tional gov­ern­ing au­thor­ity. First, the gen­eral struc­ture of the army must be main­tained in or­der to en­sure the safety of all of the Syr­ian peo­ple. The regime’s four in­tel­li­gence branches should be con­sol­i­dated into two, and their ef­forts should be di­rected to­ward sta­bi­liz­ing the coun­try and re­struc­tur­ing and re­fo­cus­ing the do­mes­tic po­lice force in the role of pro­tect­ing Syr­ian cit­i­zens. State me­dia should be com­pletely dis­man­tled, along with all of the spe­cial and field courts which were formed by Syr­ian State Se­cu­rity to quickly han­dle the mas­sive num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als ar­rested in the regime’s crack­down on the rev­o­lu­tion. All po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers should be re­leased.

Po­lit­i­cal re­form in Syria should be­gin with the writ­ing of a new demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion -- one that guar­an­tees the fun­da­men­tal rights of all cit­i­zens, and em­pha­sizes a strict sep­a­ra­tion be­tween leg­isla­tive, ju­di­cial and ex­ec­u­tive bod­ies. Fur­ther­more, the con­sti­tu­tion must in­clude fun­da­men­tal re­forms to the Syr­ian jus­tice sys­tem, which is ut­terly cor­rupt and lacks the trust of the Syr­ian cit­i­zens. More­over, the state of emer­gency should be lifted, a new mod­ern law should be is­sued to en­sure the par­tic­i­pa­tion of all Syr­i­ans in a va­ri­ety of po­lit­i­cal par­ties, me­dia cen­sor­ship laws should be lifted to guar­an­tee the free­dom of me­dia, a new elec­tion law should be es­tab­lished, a na­tional truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion should be formed to in­ves­ti­gate the sta­tus of miss­ing Syr­i­ans, and all Kurds should be granted the ba­sic rights de­nied to them for the past 50 years.

Since March 2011, over 100,000 Syr­i­ans have died. Hun­dreds of thou­sands have fled the coun­try seek­ing refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. Un­told num­bers of Syr­ian homes, busi­nesses, schools and hos­pi­tals have been ut­terly de­stroyed. Syria is in tat­ters; she has paid a steep price in blood. And it is a price that Syr­i­ans will be pay­ing for many years to come. TR


A full list of ref­er­ences for this piece can be found on­line at www.turk­ishre­


Anti-regime demon­stra­tors in Kafran­bel near Idlib.

JAN. 20, 2012 PHOTO: AP

Syr­ian Army de­fec­tors at the moun­tain re­sort town of Zabadani, near the Le­banese



An FSA fighter in Sala­hed­dine, Aleppo.


Anti govern­ment pro­test­ers flash vic­tory signs in the south­ern city of Dara’a.


The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil meets amid UN and Arab League en­voy to Syria Kofi An­nan’s ef­forts to se­cure a cease-fire.

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