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Syria's Bloody Stalemate

Interviewee: Peter Harling, Director, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, International Crisis Group
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 15, 2012

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Much of Syria is "in a state of chaos," says Peter Harling, who has been based in Damascus for the International Crisis Group, and has gone back and forth for months. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is "both well-entrenched and losing control." As for the opposition, the Syrian National Council, based abroad, he says the group "has championed an increasingly radicalized street, over-invested in an elusive international intervention, and eschewed more constructive politics." As for the jihadists, he says that what is surprising "is that foreign fighters and jihadis, for now, have not taken on a bigger role." On the international side, he says Kofi Annan's cease-fire plan "grew out of the international community's inability to agree on anything else," and as long as the "stalemate endures, it will continue to enjoy support, even from states that do not put much faith in it but have no workable alternative to offer."

You have been back and forth to Syria for quite some time. Could we start with your assessment of the situation on the ground? Is the Assad government in control; what is the role of the opposition?

The regime is both well-entrenched and losing control. Much of the country is in a state of chaos. Despite plethoric security and military assets, the single most important road, running north to south from Aleppo to Damascus, is unsafe. Criminal activity is rampant even in the vicinity of the capital. For months, opposition armed groups have made it difficult for regime troops to maintain a sustainable presence in many parts of Syria. More often than not, loyalist forces are reduced to hit-and-run operations that cause tremendous damage, solve nothing, and rather make things worse.

At the same time, the regime's core structures remain solid. A steady trickle of defections has continued, but the floodgates have not opened. This resilience has several causes. Some regime officials fear the future for the country, their community, or themselves, and believe this is a struggle for survival. Others have actually profited from the crisis, gaining in status or wealth in the booming economy of violence. Yet others are deeply disillusioned, tempted to defect, but disinclined to do so as long as the regime appears here to stay. All in all, the power structure is eroding slowly in a country that is crumbling fast all around it.

What is life like in Syria these days with sanctions making it harder to bring in imports? Does life go on anywhere near normal?

The governorates of Idlib, Hama, Homs, Dayr Zor, Damascus-Countryside, and Deraa have borne the brunt of the violence. First, demonstrations were repressed at great cost to human life. Soon, retaliations against the security services' widespread abuse led the regime to take even tougher measures. The emergence of an insurgency fueled by this cycle is now met with forms of collective punishment. Towns and villages are shelled with no discernible military objective, or raided, looted thoroughly, and set ablaze. Ensuing refugees are not only left to their own devices, but often chased around as if they were expected to disappear [into] thin air.

The prevailing narrative in regime circles, to put it simply, is this: Syria is under attack and fighting back.

Areas of relative calm remain. Towns along the Mediterranean coast, which are home to a strong Alawite population, have been largely spared in recent months. From day one the regime showed considerable restraint in dealing with dissent in the Kurdish northeast and in the Druze town of Sweida, in the south, eschewing the escalation and radicalization that has been witnessed elsewhere. Aleppo, the country's largest city and economic hub, has experienced only a belated and limited deterioration. In the capital, the most central neighborhoods recently enjoyed a revival of sorts. As Damascus absorbed constituencies from elsewhere--the wealthy owners of villas and farms in its surroundings, the middle-class of towns hit by the conflict, and poorer refugees fleeing repression--its economic activity was rekindled, on the face of it.

But this convergence on Damascus has also created new problems for the regime. It revealed the glaring gap between this bubble of artificial calm and consumerism, and the devastation of so many other parts of the country. Refugees were dumbfounded by what they saw of Damascenes, while the latter were shocked by what they heard of the former, [which were] first-hand witnesses and victims of what amounts to a scorched-earth policy. Moreover, opposition armed groups, initially rooted in their communities and holding their ground, have gone on the offensive as loyalist troops chased them in the areas they controlled. By putting them on the run, the regime has brought danger closer to home.

Describe the Assad regime's thinking. It recently held parliamentary elections, which were scoffed at by the outside world as propaganda. But is there more to it than that?

The prevailing narrative in regime circles, to put it simply, is this: Syria is under attack and fighting back. In this view, its strategic posture is both the primary cause of the conflict and the reason why its current leadership will ultimately pull through. A manageable domestic crisis was exacerbated by foreign interference, motivated by the regime's support of resistance against Israel. Officials point to biased Western and Arab media coverage, the influx of money and technology (such as satellite phones), and the double standards best illustrated by Bahrain, as exhibits one, two, and three, exposing the conspiracy. Without such meddling, the regime argues, unrest would have long toned down. In particular, the regime's reform program, which on paper goes far beyond anything a country like Saudi Arabia would be willing to even envisage, would have fully satisfied popular demands.

Of course, missing from this narrative is the extraordinarily arrogant, brutal, and sectarian behavior of the security services in dealing both with peaceful protests and armed resistance, at the cost of damaging beyond repair the relationship between the regime and large swaths of society. Those who would like to weaken or topple Syria's current leadership are doing little more than seizing the unexpected opportunity they were given.

All in all, the [Syrian National] Council has championed an increasingly radicalized street, over-invested in an elusive international intervention, and eschewed more constructive politics.

For the regime, however, this narrative serves two seemingly paradoxical purposes. On one hand, it justifies all its shortcomings--from excessive use of force to lack of political initiative through to its mishandling of the economy. All can be blamed on hostile propaganda and subversive activities, or warranted by the requirements of national salvation. In that sense, the crisis calls not for a homegrown but an international solution. On the other, the belief runs deep within Syria that the United States is not willing to go all the way to topple this regime, for fear of a regional conflagration, because the status quo serves Israel best, or due to domestic considerations, among various other conjectures. Thus the conspiracy, conveniently, is both omnipotent and impotent: it can control the world's media, prompt demonstrations across Syria, support an armed insurgency and wreck the country's economy, but what it cannot do is end the regime.

What's your opinion of the Syrian National Council, which seems in exile not to be very important, but does draw support from Western countries?

It is hard to see in what way the Syrian National Council has made the situation better, not worse. Although it was conceptualized as a formation designed to represent society as a whole, it has played a very polarizing role. By mishandling personality issues, it has alienated more prominent opposition figures than necessary. It has failed to successfully reach out to minorities, notably the Kurds. More problematic, it has yet to take any serious initiative toward the Alawites, who form the bulk of the security services. Many Syrians who cherish the state's relative secularism have been deeply disturbed by the Council's choice of allies, which they read as selling out to an imperialist United States and reactionary Gulf monarchies.

All in all, the Council has championed an increasingly radicalized street, over-invested in an elusive international intervention, and eschewed more constructive politics. This has helped the regime harden the fault lines it plays upon. The situation is not static, however. The opposition is aware of its own shortcomings and may still make progress in overcoming them.

What about groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq? Do you think, as some analysts do, that they are bringing their form of terrorism to Syria in the hope of weakening the Alawite regime?

Foreign fighters and jihadis have been part of the picture for some time. How could it be otherwise? Syrian society has been subjected for months to unthinkable forms of violence, and the country is increasingly in a state of chaos. The sectarian makeup of the security forces has exacerbated the confessional component of the conflict. Fighting an "Alawite regime" obviously is a pull factor for volunteers from around the region. And on the ground, the absence of any clear ideology and the limited room for maneuver of traditional, religious opinion leaders have opened space for more radical narratives. Finally, disenchantment with the international community has coincided with money pouring in from the Gulf.

Currently, both sides to the conflict are breaching the cease-fire they committed to, tangibly and repeatedly, with no noticeable consequences.

What is surprising, however, is that foreign fighters and jihadis, for now, have not taken on a bigger role. Fifteen months into the occupation of Iraq, decapitations on tape, bomb attacks specifically targeting Shiite civilians, and sectarian killings were occurring on a massive scale. In Syria, society is still showing overwhelming restraint and sense of purpose. Radicalization is a fact, but it is limited by an understanding that it serves the regime. Even jihadi networks appear to have learned some lessons from Iraq, where the crimes they engaged in ultimately spelled their demise.

What is your sense of the peace plan of Kofi Annan? Is it still viable, or has the recent violence made it no longer relevant?

As we can see from recent developments, the viability of the [Kofi] Annan plan [for a cease-fire] is not solely a function of what happens on the ground. Currently, both sides to the conflict are breaching the cease-fire they committed to, tangibly and repeatedly, with no noticeable consequences. Bomb attacks are difficult to attribute, but some things are clearer. For instance, opposition armed groups have engaged as of late in a systematic targeted-killing spree, picking out military personnel, security officers, civilian proxies (popularly known as shabbiha), and informants. Guerrilla-style attacks are also staged against regime assets, relentlessly, even in central Damascus. For its part, the regime is pursuing military operations and has dramatically expanded its security crackdown to include moderate opposition figures and civil society networks. Treatment of detainees has reportedly worsened considerably.

Arguably, the violence has worsened in many ways, but has taken on more dispersed and diversified forms, which are more difficult to detect and deter for a relatively small monitoring mission, compared to the shelling of a large city like Homs, as was the case several weeks ago. However, the Annan plan grew out of the international community's inability to agree on anything else. For this reason, and as long as this stalemate endures, it will continue to enjoy support, even from states that do not put much faith in it but have no workable alternative to offer. Meanwhile, such skeptics will presumably increase their covert support to the opposition, hoping to tilt the balance on the ground. Having taken these steps, there is a chance that if and when the Annan plan falters, they will be sucked into more direct intervention in the ensuing vacuum.

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