The current crisis in Syria has several ramifications at the internal, regional and Arab levels. In fact, the festering of the crisis has increased its complexity. Here, we attempt to answer two important questions: Was the strength of the Syrian regime initially underestimated? Is the Syrian uprising capable of toppling the regime?
The premise of the first question is worth exploring. In a press interview on December 21, 2012, Syrian Vice-President Farouk Al-Sharaa said that “both the regime and the opposition are incapable of winning the battle. What is required is a historical settlement.” The statement raised hopes among optimists as they saw signs of some flexibility in the regime’s position toward a political resolution of the crisis. However, after only two weeks, the statement appeared to be mere doublespeak.
On January 6, 2013, the regime’s true intentions were revealed when Bashar Al-Assad delivered a speech at the Damascus Opera House, amidst a crowd of his supporters. In his speech, it seemed that Bashar was speaking about some other country and not Syria. He continued to describe the opposition as a group of terrorists belonging to Al-Qaeda and told the Syrian people: “you can either choose me or Takfiri Jihad” [The word ‘Takfir’ refers to Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy]. Al-Assad then proposed a few initiatives to resolve the crisis. These proposals include the convening of a dialog conference chaired by his vice-president, amendment to the constitution, issuance of general amnesty, forging of a government that comprises the opposition and the issuance of new laws for political parties and elections. However, it should be noted that in this announcement Bashar completely ignored the proposals made by Lakhdar Brahimi, the Arab-UN mediator for resolving the crisis. Brahimi’s proposals were centered on the formation of a government with full power that oversees a transitional phase as per the Geneva document of June 2012. According to the document, the government will hold fair parliamentary elections, followed by presidential elections that will bar Bashar Al-Assad from running for office. When Bashar announced his proposal, Brahimi described it as being sectarian and one-sided. He added that Syrians believe that the Assad family has ruled for too long. For its part, the Syrian media criticized Brahimi’s response.
However, the criticism Brahimi received at the official level in Syria was notably less severe. Although Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fasial Al-Miqdad described his remark as biased, he qualified the statement with a meaningful phrase: “Syria is keen on the success of his mission.” It seems that the goal of the Syrian regime is to keep the mediation process going to gain more time to complete the task of taking down the opposition.
As a matter of fact, Brahimi was right in his statement that the Assad family has stayed in power for too long (i.e. for four decades), even if he did not go as far as to describe the Hafez Al-Assad rule as authoritarian, which the latter had assumed after seizing power through a military coup, which was then inherited by his son Bashar.
Bashar had delivered a high-pitched speech, but seemed calm and held himself together despite the situation he finds himself and his country in. What are the reasons and factors that provide Assad this confidence?
First of all, the Syrian army is fighting on a broad front and is still holding it together, although opposition forces have been able to take over six military bases. The Alawite elite, who form a majority in the army and the security apparatus, have for the most part remained loyal to Bashar Al-Assad because they feel their survival is closely linked to that of the regime. Russia and Iran have continued to provide Bashar’s army with weaponry as well as financial and political support, which have made some striking units in the army shift from the defensive tactics to conducting major and successful offensives around Damascus and have even been able to restore some areas it had lost earlier. Therefore, the situation in Syria is different from that in Egypt, where armed forces chose to side with the people.
Moreover, the West has stopped arming some opposition factions with sophisticated weapons that had enabled the latter to take control of some regions in Syria. The West fears that such weapons may fall into the hands of hardline Islamist factions, especially the Nusra Front. Washington has also realized that some of Bashar Al-Assad’s enemies are close to Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, and it does not want to get involved in wars entailing loss of lives and material resources following the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing financial crisis in the US. Furthermore, European states have not been enthusiastic about military intervention in Syria, or in raising support for the Syrian opposition as they too are grappling with their own economic and financial crises. It seems that the interests of the pro-opposition forces have temporarily prevented the Free Syrian Army from making major forays.
Although the West (the US in particular) wishes to punish the Syrian regime, it seems to have ignored the issue temporarily. This pullback in the Western and American positions has helped Bashar Al-Assad regain some confidence. Apparently, the opponents of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime underestimated its capacity to manage the crisis and to exploit Western fears of Islamist hardliners in the campaign as well as the regime’s hints to use chemical weapons to threaten regional and international stability.
As to the second question related to the ability of the opposition to topple the regime, it seems that it is not capable of putting up a decisive fight against the ruling regime due to several factors. These include the imbalance in the power equation between the opposition and the Bashar Al-Assad regime, the continuation of internal schisms and disagreements within the opposition factions, and the failure of efforts to reconcile opposition leaders based inside the country and those residing outside. Besides, the current international climate is not conducive to providing effective military and financial support and for adopting a coordinated plan to back the opposition in light of their disagreements and the escalating role of radical Islamism among them. Moreover, Western states themselves suffer from acute financial crises, and the engagement of some of these states in a military confrontation in Mali (France in particular) will lower their interest in the Syrian event. All these factors together support the Syrian regime’s position.
Therefore, the nature of upcoming developments depends on how successful revolutionary factions are in forming a joint and effective political and military leadership. The continuation of Brahimi’s mission is necessary, even though it has not achieved the desired success until now. Moreover, it is essential to consider mechanisms to execute the proposal made by Arab League Secretary General Dr. Nabil Al-Arabi to seek imposition of ceasefire by peacekeeping forces formed in accordance with Chapter Seven of the UN Charter and make intensive efforts to influence the Chinese and Russian positions in the Security Council, especially as there is growing consensus that there can be no military solution for resolving the Syrian crisis.
All these factors compel the two contending forces in the conflict to contemplate a middle ground and reach a political settlement that puts an end to the bloodshed and the suffering of the Syrian population for politics is the art of the possible.