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Behind Syria's Crackdown

Interviewee: Mona Yacoubian, Senior Program Officer, Middle East, U.S. Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 10, 2011

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Syria's crackdown on protests continued after the weekend as Syrian troops went house to house (NYT) in Damascus and elsewhere across the country. "It is very clear that the Syrians are now resorting to massive lethal force to put down this uprising," says Syria expert Mona Yacoubian, who notes that President Bashar al-Assad has absorbed the lessons from Iran's brutal put-down of post-election protests in 2009. While the United States is directly involved in helping Libyan use force, it is unlikely to do the same in Syria, although it will probably continue to ratchet up sanctions, says Yacoubian. The violence of Assad's crackdown, and the fact that the protest movement doesn't have the support of the army or Syria's business class, suggests it is unlikely that the Assad regime will fall, Yacoubian says. But she believes Assad's survival will come at "a tremendous cost in terms of Syria's growing isolation from the West and perhaps even more broadly."

Over the weekend there seems to have been considerably more violence in Syria. Can you bring us up to date?

We've seen massive violence (CNN) over the weekend on the part of the regime--a massive crackdown using the tactics that were used initially in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising really began. This includes the use of army tanks and sealing off the country. They have now done this in the coastal city of Banias and in the central city of Homs, the third largest city in Syria.

We are now at a turning point with respect to the way in which the Syrian regime is responding to the unrest. The Syrian regime is relying on massive, brutal force to put down the uprising. It's difficult to confirm in detail reports on the violence, because there has been a complete blocking of any foreign press. They are even shutting down phone lines within the country. Unconfirmed reports suggest that as many as eight hundred people have now been killed and as many as ten thousand arrested.

When he was first made president after his father's death, Bashar al-Assad gave the impression to a number of Westerners, including some members of Congress, that he was reform-minded and would be much more of a moderate. What happened?

Syria is not Libya, and I don't think we are going to see, nor do I believe that it is advisable for, any sort of Western military involvement in helping to put down the unrest as we saw in Libya. The stakes are far higher; it's a far more complex situation.

I think we experts gave Bashar al-Assad the benefit of the doubt because he came from a younger generation. He's an ophthalmologist by training, educated in London. He married a British-born wife. With all of that, there was some hope, along with his own professions of wanting to reform the country, that Syria would take a different path. What we've come to learn is that his prerogatives are very much the same as his father's. Namely, he wants to stay in power. He will do pretty much whatever it takes to do that. The hopes that he would be a reformer have been very much misplaced.

Talk about the people who are around him.

The core of power in Syria really does reside with Bashar and his immediate family members (FT). His younger brother Maher al-Assad is head of the Presidential Guard, an elite group of security forces. Asef Shawkat, the husband of Bashar's sister Bushra, is head of military intelligence, which is deeply involved in the crackdown. We have a country that has a Sunni majority, but that has been ruled for more than forty years by an Alawite minority, which is a Shiite offshoot sect. What we've seen over time is a concentration of power in a smaller and smaller base. With that has come deep corruption that has emanated from the family to those who are favored by the regime.

There have been reports over the years of an emerging business class that has made a lot of money. Is that accurate?

There is a well-to-do Sunni merchant class based largely in Damascus and the second largest city of Aleppo. This merchant class has done well over the last several years. It has thus far opted to sit out the unrest. That has been a critical factor in why the unrest has not gained the momentum that would be necessary to topple the regime. Those in this merchant class have made the calculation that their interests still lie with the regime. However, over time, as the unrest continues and there is a toll taken on the Syrian economy--which has essentially ground to a halt--this class may recalculate where its interests lie. That would represent a significant shift on the ground.

A major difference between Syria and Egypt is that the Egyptian army did not support President Hosni Mubarak in the end, but told him to step down. The Syrian army and security forces are not that independent, I take it?

That is the other critical area where we have not seen a necessary shift. There may be differences in the army highlighted by an unwillingness by many to fire on Syrian civilians. The leadership of the army and the intelligence services, however, are very much tied in with the Assad regime. To date, we have not seen any significant defections. Should things change, I would certainly anticipate a major change in the prospects for the regime on the ground.

So, you do not think the Assad regime is in danger of falling right now? It's not a short-term problem?

I don't think that the Assad regime is in any near-term danger of falling. Indeed, the brutal repression that we've witnessed over the weekend suggests that they may well quell the uprising. It is going to come at a tremendous cost in terms of Syria's growing isolation from the West and perhaps even more broadly.

Three countries in the region have serious interests with Syria. One is Israel, which still lacks a peace agreement, thirty-eight years after the 1973 war ended. There's Lebanon, which has always been closely aligned with Syria. Then Iran, which has become a major ally of Syria in recent years. How do these countries view the situation?

Bashar al-Assad has not been named as someone for whom sanctions should be targeted. This suggests that there is still hope that Assad will change his mind and actually begin to take a path of genuine reform.

Let's start with Iran, which maintains a very staunch alliance with the Syrians. We are seeing and learning that the Syrians are perhaps gaining insights from the Iranians, who themselves brutally took down a popular uprising in 2009 [that was] protesting the election results that year. The Syrians appear to be borrowing a page from the Iranian playbook in terms of the tactics they are using. They may well be getting various anti-riot gear and other equipment from Iran. So Iran remains very staunchly aligned with Syria, and I don't expect that to change.

Lebanon is more or less unfortunately at the mercy of what happens with Syria. The Lebanese are maintaining a steady silence about the unrest in Syria. They are watching; they've got their own sectarian tensions, their own volatility that they have to contend with. The Lebanese are more or less keeping their heads down and very warily monitoring developments in Syria.

In terms of Israel, for a long time the conventional wisdom was that the Israelis would prefer the stability of the Assad regime to chaos and potentially a staunchly Islamist regime that would follow. Now we are potentially seeing a shift in Israel in terms of where the Israelis see their interests as the unrest continues to evolve inside Syria.

Another key neighbor to look at is Turkey. They may in fact be the key regional player to watch. Thus far, the Turks have voiced their concern over Bashar's excessive practices, but they seem to be holding out the hope that he could still implement reforms. If the Turks decide that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is no longer salvageable and decide to withdraw their support to Syria, that would constitute a very significant blow to the Syrian regime.

Do you agree with those who think that the recent agreement between the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah for a unity government was based on Hamas' concern about Syria?

There are a number of complex factors that have fed into the decision by Fatah and Hamas to reconcile. The unrest in Syria has certainly given Hamas, which has its leadership based in Damascus, pause to consider how enduring the relationship will be. My understanding is that Hamas has come under some pressure to issue statements of strong support for the Syrian regime, and they are uncomfortable with that. The reconciliation is an important step, [but] we are far away from Hamas ending its relationship with Damascus.

Washington's reaction has been low-key so far.

The Obama administration understands the complexities inherent in Syria's unrest. Syria is not Libya, and I don't think we are going to see, nor do I believe that it is advisable for, any sort of Western military involvement in helping to put down the unrest as we saw in Libya. The stakes are far higher; it's a far more complex situation. We've seen the Obama administration try to watch and understand first, and see whether Assad would get the message from the unrest and begin to implement genuine reforms. We have not seen that.

We've seen with each successive stage of repression in Syria a ratcheting up in pressure, not only from the United States, but also from Europe. New sanctions have been implemented against certain members of the Syrian regime. Interestingly, Bashar al-Assad has not been named as someone for whom sanctions should be targeted. This suggests that there is still hope that Assad will change his mind and actually begin to take a path of genuine reform. But given the events that we've seen over the last weekend, I find that an increasingly distant and extremely remote possibility.

Is there a likely successor to Assad?

There really isn't, and that is part of the problem in terms of outsiders being fearful of where the unrest will lead. Syria has been under the stranglehold of a fairly repressive regime, and so the opposition of Syria has been fairly weak and somewhat divided. The Muslim Brotherhood is often identified as perhaps the most powerful of the opposition groups. Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, however, is defined as punishable by death. So, the Brotherhood's ability to organize inside Syria has been fairly restricted. The real concern and the real fear is that should the Assad regime fall, it is very uncertain what will come after. There are deep fears, given the heterogeneous makeup of Syria, that what would be more likely is an Iraq-style chaos and sectarian civil war. There is no clear understanding of what would come after the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

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