from Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

Bracing for Instability in Syria

Syria’s regime appears increasingly isolated and erratic in response to civil unrest, posing a challenge to the Arab League to prevent a spread of conflict, says CFR’s Robert M. Danin.

January 12, 2012

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may appear increasingly embattled but he is showing defiance of the Arab League and the international community, says Robert M. Danin, a CFR Middle East expert. Danin says Assad’s major televised address this week, in which he pinned blame for the unrest on foreign sources and terrorism, "signaled he is in for the fight." He says that the United States, which has called for Assad to step down, has not done much to prepare for an orderly transition in the country. A major problem, he says, is that the Syrian opposition is sharply divided, and this is contributing to the difficulty in removing Assad.

How would you describe the situation in Syria? It seems to be unchanging: protestors get killed every day but the government shows no sign of losing its power.

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You now have on average as many as forty people being killed a day. That’s one dynamic; the killing has increased, particularly since the Arab League monitors arrived at the end of December. At the same time, another dynamic that seems to be underway is increased defections from the army and the increased militarization of the conflict on the ground.

The situation is becoming more bloody on the ground. President Bashar al-Assad seems to be digging in and not even pretending to be conciliatory. And along those lines, his televised speech on Tuesday was a bit surprising in its brazenness. Many people expected him to at least offer concessions or at least make nods towards reform--and there were a few--but the focus really was on pinning the blame on "foreign plots and terrorism," which signaled that he is in for the fight.

He was also unusually hostile toward the Arab League--even though it has this observer mission in Syria--calling the Arab League the "Foreign League."

He basically said the Arab League without Syria is nothing. He positioned Syria, in essence, as the true Arabs and especially mocked the Gulf States by saying that just because you have money doesn’t make you an authentic Arab. At first blush it would seem like he’s picking a fight with the Arab League at a time when that would be counterproductive from his point of view. But what he really is trying to do is to delegitimize the Arab League mission both in the eyes of Syrians but also in the region as well. So there is a logic there and frankly he has been successful so far in keeping his opponents divided. And that really is his objective right now.

What [Assad] really is trying to do is to delegitimize the Arab League mission both in the eyes of Syrians but also in the region as well.

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There is this Syrian National Council based in Istanbul. Does the SNC speak for the opposition or is the opposition divided?

It is divided. You have the Syrian National Council. You have another group called the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which represents many of the opposition groups inside Syria. And there is a very strong division between them. They have tried to come together and overcome their differences but they have not succeeded; Syria is a very heterogeneous country.

You have different groups be it along sectarian lines, be they Druze, Alawite, Christians, Kurds. You also have a very strong Islamist element among Sunni Arabs. So there is increased unanimity on wanting Assad to go, but you have no real programmatic unity over how you get rid of Assad or what follows him. [A] key question--whether or not to request military intervention--is one that still divides the opposition. The Syrian National Council has been very upfront in calling for international intervention but that is not universally shared among the Syrian opposition.

The Arab League is supposed to make a report on Syria on January 19. Are the observers going to whitewash what’s going on or come down hard on the Syrian leadership?

Yesterday, there was a private briefing of the UN Security Council by Under Secretary-General B. Lynn Pascoe. The reports are that he was quite harsh in his report and in his criticism of the Syrian government noting that some 400 people had been killed just since the Arab League mission arrived. Assad delayed the arrival of the mission and haggled with the UN for a good deal of time. The mission was meant to have 500 observers, Assad at first allowed less than 100 in. They’ve now come to about 150, but they’re still very tightly controlled and their freedom of maneuver is limited. They are divided amongst themselves. It is going to be very hard for them to come up with a whitewash at this point because so much public attention has been drawn to their efforts and the Arab League’s credibility is on the line here.

Do you think the Arab League will push for some UN Security Council action now?

The Arab League is divided between those who want a more robust and indeed international approach towards Syria and want to go to the Security Council, and those who don’t. But you could still go to the Security Council and ask for many things short of a Chapter Seven resolution authorizing all necessary means to remove Assad. As the situation in Syria deteriorates, the failure of the Security Council to act is something that many in the West, especially in France but also in the United States, are getting increasingly angry about. The Russians themselves had put forward a draft resolution which at first seemed as if it could serve as the basis of a Security Council resolution but then the Russians watered it down. Efforts to achieve much in the Security Council remain difficult.

Assad’s speech [on Tuesday] did not serve him well at the United Nations. That was one audience he did not seem to take into account. The speech may have helped him somewhat domestically; it may have helped him even in the Arab world in certain quarters. But it did hurt him at the United Nations because that sort of defiance shows that the situation is just deteriorating and the international community’s failure to do anything looks very weak, as innocent civilians are killed every day by the dozens.

Lately, Washington’s attention has been focused more on Iran than on Syria. Talk somewhat about this relationship between Syria and Iran. Iran is Syria’s only strong ally right now, right?

Syria has a few key allies right now. Iran is one of them and the other is Russia, and to a certain extent, China. Russia continues its military relationship with Syria. Russia opposes any kind of arms embargo on Syria. Russia so far has given Syria cover in the United Nations. Iran is a source of support; there are reports that there have even been Iranians in Syria helping the regime with its tools of repression.

How is the turmoil in Syria affecting the politics of Lebanon, where Hezbollah is almost a subsidiary of Syria?

People in Lebanon are watching Syria with bated breath because they know the future of Lebanon is dependent on the outcome in Syria. There are different groups in Lebanon who have different interests in the outcome in Syria and so you cannot speak of a unified Lebanese position. Yesterday, Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, [former prime minister] called Assad’s speech a joke. The Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is increasingly critical toward the Syrian regime. This is important because both these leaders are becoming increasingly unrestrained in their criticism of the Syrians and of Assad, which suggests that their analysis is that Assad is on the defensive and is on the way out. But the Syrians can still export a lot of instability into Lebanon.

Assad is not going to go down without a fight. He may seek to export this fight and regionalize it and that is one of a number of reasons why we have to pay very close attention to what’s happening in Syria today. The administration seems to believe that Assad’s regime is finished and American officials have been quoted as saying the regime is a "dead man walking." But the assessments vary widely on when Assad will fall. It seems that the administration’s policy is to essentially wait for this to happen. How long is that going to take and what is going to happen in the meantime? I’ve suggested that one worrisome concern is the export of instability to Syria’s neighbors.

Assad is not going to go down without a fight. He may seek to export this fight and regionalize it.

Another concern is the increased militarization of the conflict within Syria. The number of defectors has increased. The activities of the Free Syrian Army have increased as well as the casualties the Syrian army is taking, something that Assad wants to highlight. Indeed, Assad very well may welcome the militarization of the conflict because that then allows the military free rein within Syria. A third element is the increased sectarianism that is taking place, which will make the ultimate unification of the country after Assad more difficult. So I worry about what happens in this intervening period even if one accepts the assumption, which to me is only an assumption, that Assad’s departure is inevitable.

What should happen next?

If indeed the administration believes that Assad’s departure is inevitable and imminent, then there is still a lot for the Arab world--and the Arab League in particular and then the larger international community--to do to prepare for that day to help ensure that there is as peaceful and effective a transition as possible. What concerns me is that there is not enough light being focused on developments in Syria to prepare for either this "inevitable" departure of Assad or a protracted stalemate. Once the Arab League meets, we’ll see what it recommends and it’s important that the Arab League provides regional legitimacy to future efforts in Syria.


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