Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Predicting Syria

Teddy Lishan Desta, PhD
Teddy is an Associate Editor for the Journal of the International Relations and Affairs Group (JIRAG). He has lectured at colleges and universities on International Affairs. He holds a PhD in International Relations from The University of Texas at Dallas, a Master of Science in Economics degree from Baylor University. He specializes in International Relations Theory, International Trade, Economics and the International Political Economy.

As the Arab Spring - the popular uprising for democratic rights in the Middles East is commonly known- gathered momentum in early 2011; Syria was not exempted from the political ferment rattling the region.  After 17 months of sustained popular uprising and armed struggle, an estimated 15,000 Syrians have lost their lives, thousands more have been maimed, and still many more have left their country to take refuge in neighboring countries.  

On one side, there is the opposition made of civilians and army deserters, and these are drawn mostly from the Sunni community who make up the majority of the population of Syria. And there is the regime, on the other side, battling the opposition using the Syrian army and the so-called militias (known as the Shabbia). As the elite army forces and the Shabbia are drawn from the ruling Alawite sect and the opposition is mainly driven by Sunnis, this gives a sectarian aspect to the ongoing armed conflict in Syria. Basically, the majority Sunnis are rising against the minority Alawite ruling class.

Since the start of the street protests back in March 2011, there has been no let down on the opposition side to give up on its demands for regime change and little sign of relenting on the government part in its heavy-handed crackdowns. The month of July has witnessed the escalation of the conflict taking the battle right to the capital city, Damascus, and right to the very power corridors of the Assad government. As the result, there have been reports of running battles in some quarters of Damascus between the armed and well-organized opposition on one hand and the Syrian army on the other.  On July  18, the opposition succeeded in infiltrating even the inner most circle of the regime, inflicting one of its most deadly attacks against it. On that day, using an apparent suicide attack, the opposition succeeded in killing a few of the most senior government officials tied to national security, including the defense minister.

Now almost everyone believes that Syria is in a virtual civil war. But the question is given the grim developments in Syria is whether all these were predictable from March 2011 when the uprising started. Did anyone foresee the country dragging itself into a long-drawn apparent civil war? Here is one example of an exercise in predictive politics done in the early months of the Syrian uprising. The pieces were written mostly between June and November, 2011.

The predictive-cum-scenario analysis exercise starts by commenting (c. June 2011) on the question of how much loyalty the Syrian army will owe to regime. The analysis began by asking if the Syrian top brass would act like the Tunisian and Egyptian generals where in those countries the army removed its loyalty to the state leader and sided with populace crying out for political change.  Hence the question on Syria was the following:

Will the regime crack? Will the army begin to split in its loyalty to Assad? Will there be a sustained uprising by the Sunnis, turning their localities into ungovernable areas?

However, foreseeing a prolonged period of conflict unless the regime deeply compromised with the opposition, the following idea was proposed. The proposal was made in the hope that the Syrian leaders would learn some lessons from the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences. Would the Syrian leaders be forced to recognize that they would no longer be able to suppress the growing protest movement even if they tried hard?

I believe in a phased and negotiated transition. It is less disruptive and if managed correctly leads to a stable future. The Syrian opposition should negotiate with the old guard so that the present leaders relinquish power peacefully. I hope the old guard understands that its days are numbered or that it can no longer govern in the same manner any longer. They may be looking for a fair chance to bow out of power in grace. A negotiated transition will give them the rare chance to retire in peace. That is what made Latin America's and SSA's transition to democracy less disruptive.

I think convening a constituent assembly and writing a constitution while still the old guard is around will make for a "peaceful" transition in Syria. But trying to sweep away the old regime all together is messy and a long-term threat to stability of Syria and the whole region.

Subsequently, I wrote,

If they [i.e., Syrian leaders] cannot see the writing on the wall, bad for them. By now they should have learned the Biblical lesson that "a crown will not last forever." I hope they heard or read somewhere that "those who refuse to learn from history, will be condemned to repeat its mistakes." And in history there have been plenty of fallen regimes to learn a lesson or two.”

Let us hope and pray that they will compromise in the true sense of the word, avoiding dragging their nation towards a long-drawn unrest.

Actually in the early months of the protest, there were a few positive signs where the Syrian president was prepared to make some concessions to the opposition promising to carry out some mollifying reforms. Had he persisted in making genuine reforms, I argued here, that he would have easily opened the flood gates and Syria would have easily embarked on the way to political reforms as demanded by the opposition. However, the government was violently suppressing peaceful street protests while it appeared to make some compromises. Therefore, I began to reason:

i).The Syrian regime is bringing out its worst form for all to see. Despite the suppression, the opposition has not given up hammering with determination. Yes, the regime is developing fissures. If the people keep the pressure, the regime wall will give in at its weakest points.

ii). The signs of the developing crack are visible now. These are mainly in the forms of concessions Assad has been offering to the opposition. It is probable that once the regime starts to make these types of concessions, it can enter a slippery slope situation. The regime may think it is in full control of everything, but it is an illusion of control. They cannot stop the' momentum of change that is born of decades of suppression. Whenever the people are dealing with a fascist regime, they may need to push the harder.

iii). Who said only the Ba’athists are nationalists? The opposition too are true Syrians. The accusation that the opposition is fighting to dismember Syria and sell its pieces on e-bay is dubious. The regime can accuse the opposition as thugs, saboteurs, and agents of foreign agents. But should we suspect them of base motives?”

I believed that Syria’s leaders will open up the political space quickly seeing the consequences of the democratic upheaval in the region. I desired to see a phased and well-managed transition in Syria, as has been the case with Tunisia and Egypt where old regime institutions (like the army and the court systems) played a critical part to ensure a less disruptive transition to a democratic rule. The signal from the opposition that it was ready to enter into negotiation on the primary condition that the Syrian leader steps down in favor of one his vice presidents give me some hope for a relative peaceful transition in Syria.  Because according to news reports,

"The organizers of local and nationwide demonstrations say they won't participate in any national dialogue that would not have Bashar Al-Assad stepping down in favor of one of his vice-presidents, presumably the long-standing foreign affairs specialist Farouk Al-Sharaa..."

I tried my case for a phased transition, noting:

i). Rather than calling for the complete sweep away of the Ba'ath regime (which outcome has its own grave dangers), this phased-out approach to the Syrian crisis promises an orderly transition to the new era. When many are waiting in the wings to fish in troubled Syrian waters, at this stage, Syrians should be smart enough to avoid a regime collapse that could be followed by a civil war...

I hope the Syrian opposition residing in Turkey will tone down its rhetoric and adopt this approach.

ii). Once the above demand is granted, the demonstrators should go home to give the politicians some time to map out the transition period. A strong and stable government is needed in this transition period lest politics and economy further slide into the abyss. The people should let the politicians do their job.

There should be an element of continuity in any political change of this magnitude. Otherwise, we will be begging for a societal meltdown.

We cannot make the Alawites feel as if they are being swept out of power altogether. We cannot put other minorities on edge, making them fear of a coming tyranny of the majority. To fail to do that is to beg for endless crisis and even for a civil/ ethnic war.

In the cases of Egypt and Tunisia - it is the military generals (for the sake of state and national stability) who intervened and are currently mid-wife-ing the new political order of their countries. I call these generals (and top civil servants) elements of continuity because they belong to the outgoing regimes.

In the case of Syria, because there is a strong ethnic quality to the army top brass, perhaps the ruling party will find a way to negotiate the necessary change with opposition and civil society groups. The Ba'ath Party should quickly find a novel arrangement/ approach to ensure that element of continuity in the midst of great changes. An element of continuity - a phased transition - is necessary to help Syrians to avoid total regime collapse and an Alawite rout which both outcomes have immense economic, political and social consequences. I bet on Ba'ath party level-headed elements to recognize this need and steer Syria in the right direction.
Dissecting the Syrian Regime

 I also did some regime analysis, trying to foresee how the Syrian regime might fall.

At that point in time, I still expected the Syrian regime to have learned a few lessons from the Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian leaders’ experiences making small reforms that could snowball eventually. [1] Then I got pre-occupied studying regime collapse, wondering what takes a “security regime” like that of the Ba’ath regime in Syria to fall.

What is the lesson from history; what makes for the demise of fascist/ totalitarian regimes?

(i). When they get crushed by a foreign military power. Cases: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Saddam's Iraq, etc.

(ii). When their army is overwhelmed by internal armed rebellion. Case: Mengistu's regime.

(iii). When a new leader starts to reform the system and that snowballs and leads to the end of the regime. Case: Gorbachev's USSR.

(iv). When the global (or regional) power structure changes, and no longer a Great Power supports the local autocratic regime. Case: Latin American dictatorships; East European communist regimes.

If Assad's Baath regime ever falls, by which of these ways will its fall come?

Given the internal line up of forces and the regional and global power support it garners now, the only and most likely way the regime can meet its demise is through a snowballing reform effort.

So the opposition through a combination intense pressure and negotiation can force the regime to move slowly to a point of cascading reforms. The tipping point comes the day a constituent assembly convenes and a new constitutions starts being written.

Then took a broader look at regime types to defend my position why the Syrian regime is autocratic and what that implies for its future.

How does the state manifest itself in a polity? Let us identify here at least three major types of state - society power relationships.

i). The leader is supreme: The political leader is supreme over all, over the state and over the nation. Everything revolves around him and almost everything emanates from him. As the famous declaration of Louis XIV put it, "l'Etat c'est moi."  It is very hard to distinguish between the will and actions of the supreme leader and that of the state. Historical cases give indications that the people and the state exist for/ because of the leader. But we hasten to note that "l'Etat c'est moi" could be of two kinds; the supreme leader can be outright dictatorial, or paternalistic.

ii). The people are supreme: This is the case of democratic or pluralistic societies. Here The government (rulers) and the state exist and function because the people willed them into existence and operation through popular consent. The people have the power to change any aspect of the nature and structure of the government or the state through rules prescribed by the constitution. Policies designed and implement by the state generally reflect the will of the people.

iii). The state is supreme: Here the party rules making obedience to the state as the supreme ideal of the polity. An ideology of statism, as for example espoused by Italian fascism, holds that: Sovereignty is vested not in the people but in the national state, and that all individuals and associations exist only to enhance the power, the prestige, and the well-being of the state. The concept of statism, which is seen as synonymous with the concept of nation, and corporatism repudiates individualism and exalts the nation as an organic body headed by the Supreme Leader and nurtured by unity, force, and discipline of the political party. [2]It is to this category that Ba'ath party states like that of Syria historically belong.

Under statism people's "consent" (acquiesce) to the state comes from either out of fear, or from the economic or security (stability) benefit the people think the State ensures them. But differences and tensions between the State and the people arise whenever the people demand for individual liberties, or for share in the running of the government through their directly elected representatives, or for regional autonomy (or group rights). Statist leaders (as fascist/ Ba'athist leaders are) believe only in the utter submission of the people to the will of the State, and they go over time to suppress the peoples' demands. Bloody crackdowns will become the order of the day as the fascist state tries to inculcate the fear element on the people.

This is Syria's current experience - a popular uprising trying to move the polity to a pluralistic society and a fascist state which tries its best to keep the status quo.

Two things are quite noticeable in the Syrian crisis. The people have broken the fear factor through which fascist leaders keep the existing order. The next step will be for the people to form parallel (shadow) state/ government institutions. These institutions will gradually undermine the monopoly of state power and functions held by the fascist state. As the Syrian people withdraw their "consent" from the Ba'ath fascist state, they will effectively leave the political leaders few subjects to control/ govern. As the result the Ba'ath state will gradually wither away. It will enter obsolescence because now the people are building their own state institutions which are based on popular consent. The more the Ba'ath state becomes irrelevant and redundant, the more the people will get closer to achieving their freedom. The international community should understand this dynamic to encourage and support the effort of the Syrian people in this direction.

Civil War is Coming!

By summer, it became clear to me that Syria was headed into a civil war and that there was a degree of inevitability to it. I worried army desertions would grow to give the opposition a more experienced fighting force.

Unlike most interstate wars, civil wars do not begin with a "declaration of war." A country simply slides into civil war imperceptibility, with a clash here and a clash there, and with a now-on and a then-off style of armed confrontations. Given the way the Syrian regime uses its army today - in brutally suppressing the popular uprising - the regime is unwittingly creating the conditions for desertions within the army. It will not be lost for long on the minds of the young soldiers that who is being cut down by the Syrian army machine guns and tanks are not foreign soldiers, but Syrians - their own family and kin. If this keeps going on, then the cracks will widen in the Syrian army, resulting in an irreparable breach in its ranks. That the Sunnis make up the majority in the rebellion camp as well as in the army that composition makes that danger of army desertions a high possibility. It is this danger that the regime should fear most now.

And added these in subsequent posts.

Defection from the Syrian army is growing and the deserters are organizing and fighting back pro-regime forces. The trickle yet will become a flood taking Syria down the road of a bloody civil war.

The country could slide into a civil war. At some point the people could rise up in arms and resist the regime forces (soldiers and militias), saying "enough is enough; we are not going take this anymore lying down." The Syrian government is forcing the people in that sad direction. It appears to be just a matter of time before we see these peaceful demonstrations turning into insurgencies. First it will be here and there as isolated incidents; but later these fires will join to become a major conflagration of armed conflict of national span.

Let us not forget the foot soldiers are predominantly Sunni, so are the protesters too. As the regime persists with its brutal suppression of the uprising, eventually, the Alawi commanders could be left with their few special forces or even a phantom army to lead.

The trickle of defection could gather speed. The soldiers may no longer tolerate to see the carnage of their own kin or remain deaf to any call by their people to come and stand by them. The voice of a mother or a father could be more compelling than that of the commanding officer.

So as a the Syrian social fabric gets torn and as the communal fissures widen and economic class interests polarize, then the various sectarian and economic interests will align according to their status quo/ outcome preferences. Then the battle lines will become more clear, but nastier.

 Building Scenarios

Soon I began to wonder about likely outcomes in the Syrian crisis. I tried to predict the likely directions events could lead the country. I played with a few probable scenarios, but my bet was on an incipient civil war engulfing the country.  This was written in summer 2011.

What are the possible scenarios for the Syrian crisis unfolding in the near future? Here are a few possibilities.

i). Scenario A: The Syrian leadership will heed the advice of the UN, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and all these emissaries. It will stop its bloody crackdown and it will begin to make concessions to the opposition camp. The regime will likely enter the negotiation with the opposition camp from a "position of strength". The government will make and follow through with meaningful reforms based on a realistic timetable. As the result, slowly Syria will return to normalcy.

What is the chance that al-Assad will listen to the advice of outsiders and enact meaningful reforms? I give it a chance of only one out of ten.

ii). Scenario B: The Syrian leaders will persist in their violent crackdown in the belief that they can permanently quash the uprising. On the other hand, the people will refuse to be silenced rather choosing to stand up and challenge the regime for many days to come.

As the more this continues - the killings and demonstrations - Syria will slide more into economic and social chaos. And slowly the country will start to fragment and pockets of armed resistance groups will pop up throughout the country. These groups will draw followers along sectarian lines. And as a virtual civil war emerges, the Syrian army cracks and fragments along confessional lines, and its ranks thin out due to desertions.

This scenario precludes foreign powers intervening directly supporting one side.

The chance of this scenario transpiring is quite high. I can give it a chance of four out of ten.

iii). Scenario C: The more the Syrian leadership persist in its killings, the more it will earn the opprobrium of the rest of the world, where concerned countries and international bodies will keep on delivering advice, rebuke and sanction to the Syrian leadership. To prevent a worse massacre from taking place, or to prevent the collapse of the whole country, or to deliver their co-coreligionists from the harsh measures of a minority sectarian government, particularly regional countries may feel the need for "military" intervention.

The military intervention will not be of the Libyan or Bosnian kind, but of a limited and of a different kind. Regional countries like Turkey (and remotely Saudi Arabia) may be likely candidates for such a "limited" military intervention. For example, Turkey has already suggested it may enter Syrian territory to set up a buffer zone. Turkey's excuse is to provide Syrian refugees a safe shelter in case the Syrian government attacks a major city like Hama with disproportional force. And more recently, Turkey has indicated that it will begin to regard the Syrian crisis as its own internal crisis, because the two countries share 800-miles long border!

Here, there is precedence to drawn upon. In the 1980s, in the height of Lebanon's civil war, Syrian forces entered that country to keep peace in Lebanon. The Syrians entered Lebanon with the tacit approval of the Saudis, the US, and even Israel. The Syrians stayed in Lebanon for many years. But today, the Syrians themselves may be on the receiving end. Turkey may likely enter Syrian territory with the approval of other major countries. Turkish forces showing up at their common border, may force the Syrian government to consider its bare-knuckle behavior towards its civilian population. Such intervention by outsiders may weaken the Syrian leadership prowess and make it to negotiate with the opposition in earnest.

What is the chance that outside forces like Turkey's will show up on Syrian territory to make the Syrian army behave humanly? I give that a chance of two out of ten.

At some point, I added,

Last time I commented on the Syrian scenario, I gave the prospect of armed civil conflict odds of 4 to 10. Now I will like to raise it to 6 to 10. Why? (i) the chances of a negotiated settlement grows dimmer by the day as both sides seem to dig in their respective positions, (ii) the likelihood of Assad's rule being replaced by a more accommodating regime as by coup d'etat looks unlikely, (iii) the opposition is quite determined to keep protesting despite the mounting cost they are paying at the hands of the pro-regime forces, (iv) the level of political violence on both sides is rising, involving high profile killings, (v) the Syrian regime support from other countries is dwindling, giving heart to the oppositions forces to stand firm their ground, etc.

If his interview with British journal, the Daily Telegraph,[i] says anything, President al-Assad is quite determined to 'wage war" against his opponents. However, they too are determined to resists his efforts and fight on - the very recipe for a protracted armed civil conflict in Syria.

At the same time, I was mapping out what would and should happen on the opposition side. The opposition was relentless in its defiance against a regime which was showing little qualms in using strong tactics to suppress the uprising:

What does the future entail for Syria? Neither the Syrian government nor the people seem to back-down from their convictions that have set them on a collision course from the outset. The discipline and the determination the masses have shown and the sacrifices they have made so far gives all the indications that the people are in it until the bitter end. However, for the opposition to achieve their objective of replacing a Ba'ath party with pluralistic democracy there should be some re-thinking to be done in terms of tactics.*

It is one thing to stand up bravely and be gunned down for one's belief; but it is another thing to do the fighting in a smart way to quicken the demise of one's opponent.

These are just three suggestions made by way of hastening the victory of the people.

i) Organization: At the top, opposition parties should get themselves an umbrella type organization to coordinate the revolution.  The opposition speaking and acting as one body, will seriously threaten the regime. And at the grassroots level, there should appear, throughout the country, secretive cells or revolutionary councils that should coordinate the uprising and pressure the regime. These secretive councils would also function as parallel (shadow) local "governments", where they will gradually undermine and curtail the administrative reaches of the government. They will serve as vehicles by which eventually transfer of allegiance and authority to new sets of institutions will take place. These types of local councils will make Syria ungovernable, literally making the country out of the reaches of the regime.

ii). Propaganda: There is a need to create alternative media sources, which will effectively counter the regime's mass media - national tv, radio and print media. There should be an information war to be waged as much as street-level uprising and international sanctions.

Alternate media sources will have multiple objectives. They will further galvanize the people, provide the uprising with critical information for the day-to-day struggle, spur the yet-not-mobilized sections of the population to join the revolution, and effectively and permanently de-legitimize the regime in the eyes of the masses, and introduce the masses to new political ideals and their possible future leaders. The international community can help the opposition to set up tv and radio stations in nearby places like Turkey, or do it through satellite streaming. On the other hand, setting up underground newspapers within Syria can be a relatively easier task given the level of popular resistance to the current regime.

iii). Infiltrating the ranks of the security forces should be another area of focus for the opposition. Making contacts with sympathetic elements within the security forces (army, police and secrete service, etc) could serve a double purposes: (a) vital source of information related to regime's plans and operations, and (b) planting the idea of change within the ranks of the security establishment. These institutions thus can be undermined from within, making them to crumble eventually.

The international community need give the nudge and support to the opposition in these additional and very critical forms of struggle.

In due course the prognosis got grim, as I to give up all hope in the Syrian government to show reasonable attitude to compromise.

What will be the outcome of this unrest in Syria? The Syrian state will decay; its feared army will dissolve and disintegrate. Syria will empty out, as the educated and business elite leave the country for the safety of other nations. Why, because the regime is committing suicide by falling on its own sword. Its appearance to fight on will only prolong Syria's unhinging.
Foreign Interference

I also entertained ideas wondering which regional powers could be involved in the Syrian crisis and why.

At this point it may be safe to assume that the power struggle in Syria involves only two clear-cut major groupings - the dictatorial Ba’athist regime and its allies on one side, and the opposition, which has an aspiration for a pluralistic society, on the other side. By assuming this likely power alignment to persist in the future, we can begin to investigate the likely role of outside powers in trying to influence the outcome of the Syrian power struggle. Among all regional and world powers, I predict, the major tussle to influence Syrian affairs will be between Turkey and Iran.

(i). Turkey will side with the opposition and will plan for a post-Assad Syria. Turkey may see the current Syrian unrest as an opportunity to get greater leverage in Syria at the expense of Iran and Russia. Turkey as a secular (or moderate islamist) democracy may hold great attraction to Syrian opposition figures. For Turkey to win Syria will be a sign of its growing clout in the region.

(ii). Iran will try its best to keep intact its influence with the Assad regime as long as it can. Therefore, Iran may collaborate with the Syrian regime to crash the rebellion against Assad. Iran may not even hesitate to use Lebanon's Hezbollah as its proxy to assist in order to preserve Iranian influence in Syria. And if push comes to shove, Iran may even unleash Hezbollah into Syria's domestic turmoil. Simply put, Iran cannot afford to lose Syria - Iran's closest ally in the region and its gateway to Lebanon - to Turkey or to anyone else.

(iii). Another regional power which like to be involved in Syrian affairs might be the other regional power, Saudi Arabia. The problem with Saudi Arabia is that it does not have a horse to back in Syria yet. Because Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, it is not a popular figure with the Syrian opposition. And Assad's Ba’athist regime is no friend of Arab monarchies, either. Moreover, Assad may not want to damage its useful relationship with Iran by siding with the Saudis now. So for the moment the Saudis (despite their wealth which they can throw around to buy friends) are sitting idly by on the sidelines.

(iv). Other regional powers, namely Israel and Egypt are out of the Syrian question for the moment. For obvious reasons, it is very hard to imagine Israel being involved in shaping Syria's politics; and Egypt is too busy running its own revolution. [Next I will try to examine what role the Great Powers may play in Syria's turmoil to determine its future.] “

And I also wrote:

But Damascus by taking steps which makes it look like that it is not listening, what is it thinking?

A). The uprising is controllable; it is just a matter of time before the regime can bring everything under control. Al-Assad thinks time is on its side as the "majority" of Syrians, particularly the middle class the security branches of the state.  For many , stability under al-Assad trumps democracy and the likely chaos attendant transition.

But the idea that the uprising will die down could back fire. The whole country will be up in revolt gradually. This could lead to:

i). regime fractures, leading to the rise of a new leadership

ii). a civil war

B). The whole thing will remain a Syrian internal affair; no one will dare to interfere. But the idea that no one will dare to interfere from outside could also backfire:

a). The UN could bless the effort to de-legitimize the Syrian regime.

b). Turkey may send her troops to the Syrian border to put pressure on Damascus.

c). Foreign powers could engineer a coup d'etat, if possible.

It was the last point of a possible coup which I again took up in July 2012.
There is some interesting aspect to the Syrian political crisis, the lessons it teaches us about the right or wrongness of foreign intervention in the midst of a popular uprising and a repressive regime. What the unfolding Syrian civil war is showing is what Libya would have become if the Western nations had not intervened directly to support the Libyan opposition. The barely armed Libyan opposition fighters were no matches to the heavily armed  Gaddafi’s regime. But it does not mean that Gaddafi would have easily wiped out the uprising, which had every sign of continuing at least in the eastern provinces which had always felt neglected and left out.

The Syrian story equally would have been the story line of Iraq if Saddam Hussein had been left in power, which he could easily have done so given his security Ba’ath state. However, his fate would have been determined by the Arab Spring, a popular uprising for democratic rights staged across the region which he could not have easily thwarted. Iraq’s fate would have resembled Syria’s for the major reason that Iraq’s power distribution parallels that of Syria in many ways. In both countries a very repressive Ba’ath regime has been in power, with a very personal as well as ethnic element in the power structure. Compared to Syria, in Iraq the ethnic balance of power has reversed. Unlike in Syria, the Sunnis in Iraq are a minority population making only about 20% of the population. However, Saddam’s co-ethnics, the Sunnis though a minority group had dominated Iraqi politics for long years. On the other hand Iraq’s majority population the Shiite, which made up to 60% of the population, chafed under Sunni dominated Ba’ath misrule. Equally, the Kurds, a sizable Iraqi minority group, also had suffered immensely under the hands of Saddam. Therefore, the arrival of the Arab Spring at the doorsteps of Iraq under Saddam would easily have given us the civil war scenario unfolding before our own very eyes in Syria today.

Russia and Iran to the Rescue?

At last, sometime in mid 2012, Russia started to show some signs of cooperating with the West to ease al-Assad out of power and create in anew transitional government.  In July 2012, I wrote,

 Russia is finally recognizing that supporting the Baath regime is no longer sustainable. Russia is finally seeing that its obduracy to frustrate any effort at "regime change" in Syria is a losing game than a winning one.
Therefore, Russia is finally acting in her best geo-strategic interest in Syria. What Russia is trying to do now can be described as a push for a "soft coup" in Syria. This can likely save Russia some foothold in the new Syria to be born.
On the other hand, the Iranians all along were wiser than the Russians when it comes to the Syrian crisis. From the outset they were advising Bashir al-Assad to listen to the people. Of course, the Iranians will also play a strong "behind the scene" role to press the Syrian regime to make realistic concessions to the opposition. So through whatever left of the old regime, Iran too will be able to keep some of her influence in the new Syria. Hence, the "soft coup" will be in the interest of Iran as much as that of Russia.

This was besides my expectations; from the earliest day, that at least Turkey will set up a safe haven inside Syria to protect civilians from Syrian government slaughters. I relied on new reports much on this possibility. [3]

As things stand in the last week of July, the much emboldened armed opposition is taking the Syrian army face to face in battles in cities and in rural areas. Some parts of the outlying regions and border areas, like the Kurdish region and the Syrian – Iraqi border area are virtually out of the hands of government forces. In short, Syria is engulfed in civil war, and as some say it is a matter of time before the regime falls and Syria enters a very uncertain political future. In the midst of the bitter struggle for power in Syria, some worrying questions are:

-         Will the civil war prolong as the regime and the Alawi choose to fight to the bitter end, or will the opposition succeed to score a quicker victory in easing out president al-Assad from power and succeed in forming a national unity government that will save Syria from further bloodshed?

-         Will Syria fragment into fiefdoms, where the country virtually breaks up into Sunni, Alawi and Kurdish areas with attendant ethnic cleansing?

-         Will Syria become a theater of regional and global rivalry? Will Russia, Iran and Hezbollah stand by the Syrian government side and Western nations and Middle-East Sunni stalwarts like Saudi Arabia and Qatar side with the opposition, making the Syrian crisis more than a civil war but a proxy war?


My discussion of the Syrian crisis can be found in the following LinkedIn posts.

[1] Note: I called the Syrian Ba’athist regime statist, something bordering on a fascist state, for want of a better term then.

[2] See -