Syria’s predictable slide into civil war

Syrian government supporters welcome Russia's foreign minister to Damascus for talks (photo:dpa)
Syrian government supporters welcome Russia's foreign minister to Damascus for talks (photo:dpa)

The world is watching, seemingly helpless, as Syria sinks deeper into civil war. The crisis is all too familiar in the region, with echoes of Lebanon’s 15-year conflict from 1975-1990, and the war in Iraq. Military action by Nato, as in Libya, has been ruled out. And President Bashar al Assad is unlikely to stand down, while he has support from Russia, China and Iran.

THERE appear to be just two roads ahead for Syria – a long protracted, bloody civil war, or the swift end of the regime. Most observers see the first scenario as the most likely.

Former president Hafez Al Assad, the president’s father, was a master chess player and strategist who kept strong links with Iran and the Soviet Union/Russia without alienating the Gulf states and the US

The conflict in Syria has been fuelled for decades by a combustible combination of sectarianism, extreme political repression and state-sponsored violence by the Shia Alawite sect over the majority Sunni population. It has also suffered from regional stresses, a strategic alliance with an international pariah state such as Iran, and the country’s overly optimistic view of its own importance.

Syria’s loss of support of its financial and political backers from the Gulf states in favour of their arch foe, Iran, was a strategic miscalculation driven by a narrow view of sectarian alliances with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iran. It also reflected the mindset that goes with a long absolutist reign.

Game of chess

Former president Hafez al Assad, the president’s father, was a master chess player and strategist who kept strong links with Iran and the Soviet Union/Russia without alienating the Gulf states and the US.

The Gulf states continued to fund Syria generously as long it kept the balance, with gestures such as sending Syrian forces to be part of the coalition which ended the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1991.

Hafez al Assad kept the Syrian-Israeli border quiet for 40 years. His son, President Bashar al Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, has not been so astute.

A civil war in Syria could rival the war in Iraq. The two countries have roughly the same population of between 23 and 25 million, with similar ethnic, religious and sectarian groups, though with different percentages.

Shia v Sunni

Iraq’s Shia population is larger than its Sunni and Kurdish demographic components, but the margin is not large enough to ensure total dominance.

By contrast the Sunni population of Syria far outnumbers both the Alawites and the Kurds. But the regime continues to control a very large and well-equipped army and divisions of guards that balance out the sheer numerical superiority of the restive population and the ill-equipped Free Syrian Army, the splinter armed force made up of army defectors.

There are fears of large sectarian massacres similar to those in the old Yugoslavia as the two sides face off against each other, and diplomatic exits reach a dead end.

An Arab League plan was a mild set of conditions which included the transfer of power to the current vice president, Farooq al Shara, who had served the Assad family for 40 years. It was hardly a call to arms. Yet a UN resolution backing it was blocked by a Russian-Chinese veto.

Opposition support

A classic geopolitical vacuum has opened up in the ‘Poland’ of the Middle East. This is both unsustainable and very dangerous. Foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and their Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, who met in Istanbul at the end of January, agreed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, would deepen military, diplomatic and political cooperation with Turkey in support of the Free Syrian Army and the opposition.

This is likely to be by providing money and equipment initially, but may develop into creating a safe haven on the Turkish border for the Free Syrian Army to re-group, train and get equipped.

Supplies corridor

No one seriously expects a repeat of Nato’s military intervention in Libya, or that China and Russia will change their position. The only way forward for the GCC and Turkey is the implementation of the Arab League plan, support for the Free Syrian Army and the opposition, and a maritime blockade to prevent arms from reaching the Syrian government.

The use of Iraq as an air and ground corridor by Iran to deliver supplies and support to Syria is a more difficult challenge. The Iraqi Sunni groups are trying to disrupt the corridor in support of their Sunni brethren in Syria, while the Iranian backed Iraqi Shia groups are trying to protect its use.

Post-Ottoman Arab states have failed in the past 100 years to build modern state structures based on citizenship

Turkey has recently weighed in supporting Iraqi Sunnis.

Stifle progress

Post-Ottoman Arab states have failed in the past 100 years to build modern state structures based on citizenship. They have continued to package old tribal and sectarian loyalties and rivalries in modern language, and used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an excuse to quash dissent and stifle progress.

The time has come for all political accounts to be settled. Unfortunately, in the case of Syria, which critics say meddled far beyond its ability in regional affairs, this settlement is likely to happen through civil war.

Syria: a history

  • Once centre of Islamic Empire which saw invasion and occupation by Romans, Mongols, Crusaders and Turks
  • Gained independence from France in 1947
  • 1958-61 united with President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt - Nasser was one of the most important political figures in modern Arab history and 20th century politics serving as president from 1956 until his death in 1970
  • Army coup restored independence
  • Alawite controlled Baath party took control in 1963
  • Strong authoritarian rule at home, particularly under Hafez al Assad’s rule from 1967-2000, father of the current president
  • Tens of thousands reportedly killed by regime in 1982 uprising by Muslim Brotherhood in Hama
  • Lost Golan heights to Israel in 1967 six-day war
  • Accused of supporting armed groups which attack Israel
  • Implicated in UN report in killing of Lebanese former premier Rafik Hariri. Damascus denied it but pulled forces out of Lebanon in 2005

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