SYRIA ON THE BRINK? A SKEPTICAL POINT OF VIEW
"A MONTH ago seasoned watchers of Syria reckoned that the regime’s ferocious crackdown would keep the lid on dissent, albeit with President Bashar Assad’s legitimacy badly impaired. Now the prevailing wisdom is changing. Rather than subside, the protests are spreading and intensifying. Having started in the south and spread to coastal cities such as Banias, they moved to Homs, Syria’s third-biggest city, and the surrounding central districts. More recently they have gripped Hama, the country’s fourth city, famed for its uprising in 1982, when 20,000 people may have been killed by the then president, Hafez Assad, the present incumbent’s father. After starting in the rural areas, the unrest has hit cities all over the country. And the death toll, well past 1,200, has begun to rise more sharply. On June 3rd, at least 70 people are reported to have been killed in Hama alone.
The first of two big questions is whether the revolt will get going in Damascus and Aleppo, the capital and Syria’s second city respectively, which have been relatively but by no means entirely quiet. The second big question is whether the security forces, on which the regime was founded when Assad père took over in 1970, will stay loyal. If the army’s middle and lower ranks, drawn mainly from the country’s Sunni majority, which comprises some 75% of the population, begin to turn against the senior ranks where the Alawite minority (10%, including the Assad family) predominates, the regime could begin to fall apart. The events of June 5th in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, near the north-western border with Turkey, suggest that this may be starting to happen".
The Economist, "The Syrian uprising: the balance of power is shifting." The Economist. 9 June 2011, in www.economist.com.
"As night fell, on the surface everything in order. But then a succession of events occurred which to this day astonished with their suddenness and scope: a mutiny of the Petrograd garrison which in twenty-four hours transformed half the troops into rioters and by March 1 had the entire contingent of 160,000 uniformed troops in open rebellion....The survival of the Tsarist regime ultimately depended on the loyalty of the army since the usual forces of order---the police and the Cossacks---did not have the numbers to cope with thousands of rebels. In February 1917, these forces consisted of 3,500 policeman, armed antiquated Japanese rifles, and Cossack detachments which, for an unaccountable reason, had been divested of nagaiki, their dreaded whips. Nicholas [Tsar Nicholas II] showed that he was aware of his dependence upon the troops when he assured the British Ambassador the army would save him. But the troops loyalty wavered when ordered to fire on unarmed crowds".
Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution. (1990), pp. 278-279.
The analysis in last week's Economist is similar to others that has recently appeared in the Anglo-American press concerning the current crisis in Syria 1. According to this line of thinking, the fact that the regime in Damascus has singularly failed to stop the protests by its populace, notwithstanding the employment of armed troops in various towns and provincial cities, means that the 'climate of fear', which has previously enveloped the country has disappeared and that inevitably the regime's days are numbered. With whether or not what follows is a transition `a la Egypt & Tunisia or a civil war `a la Yemen, Libya or (to go back some years) Iraq, is still up for discussion. To my mind, the above analysis seems to be putting the cart before the horse. The fact that the regime was able to relatively quickly re-assert control over the border region with Turkey which perhaps saw last week a minor military mutiny seems to indicate that it is quite willing and able to deploy force in such a fashion that prevents the opposition from even thinking about acquiring a base of operations against the regime 2. With that being said, how stable is the government at present, and how likely is it to remain in power? To my mind, the crux of the matter is that as long as the regime retains the loyalty of its corps d'elite of Alawite troops and security personnel in the major cities, particular those of Aleppo and Damascus, then in the absence of foreign intervention, Assad Fils, will remain in power for quite awhile to come. The only real possibility of a dislodging the Baathist regime would be if: i) there were a coup d'etat by a regime 'insider', who Samson-like, would manage by his actions to bring the entire edifice crashing down, tout`a coup. So far, no such individual has chosen to play the role of Konrad Wallenrod. For good reasons of course...ii) if there were major demonstrations in either Damascus or Aleppo, which the security forces (police, para-military, secret police, et cetera) available were unable to deal with immediately. In such circumstances, the regime's ability to count upon the loyalty of its military units in the immediate vicinity of either urban centre, might be less than what the circumstances call for. The key here is that unlike in a provincial capital or town, where by virtue of its isolation from the rest of the country, the regime can at its leisure crush any uprisings, in the case of either Aleppo or Damascus, speed and timing would be a vital variable. With the longer that any uncontrolled situation exists, the greater likelihood that it would naturally tend to escalate. And in that circumstance, 'escalation' by definition means away from the regime and towards the opposition (whoever they may be in that particular circumstance). If and only if, something akin to the above scenarios were to come about, do I for one, foresee the downfall of the Assad regime.
1. See for a typical examples: Leader, "Syria unraveling." The Financial Times. 11 June 2011, in www.ft.com; Elliott Abrams, "After Assad, Democracy in Syria?" The Council on Foreign Relations. 10 June 2011, in www.cfr.org. As well as any of the recent postings in the past month in Joshua Landis' online journal: Syria Comment (www.syriacomment.com).
2. Liam Stack, "Syrian Troops Retack Control of Rebellious Town in North." The New York Times. 12 June 2011, in www.nytimes.com.