Σάββατο, 21 Φεβρουαρίου 2015

The Syrian Conundrum - Το Συριακό αίνιγμα

Μια πολύ ενδιαφέρουσα μελέτη - άρθρο για την Συριακή κρίση από την Χριστιάνα Κύρκου. 
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1. INTRODUCTION

Over the last three and a half years, the international community has been witnessing the slow but gradual dissolution of one of its 193 members. The Syrian crisis started off as part of the Arab Spring, but has been changing faces towards a civil war or even genocide. While other countries affected by the Arab Spring in 2011 and with many commonalities with Syria have managed to move to another stage in their history - not necessarily a brighter one, but a new one - Syria seems unable to take the necessary leap. Meanwhile, the casualties have reached 200.000 and the Syrian refugee crisis counts more than 3 million Syrians on the run .
This essay identifies four elements that make the Syrian crisis a true conundrum for the international community. First, the shift of the conflict from political to sectarian has increased the stakes for all parties into zero-sum terms, while the danger of genocide looms. Second and third, the extensive fragmentation of the opposition undermines its prevalence and the peace negotiations, while the de facto territorial division of the once nation-state is so complex that it seriously hinders restoration. The fourth and final point regards the extreme reluctance of the international community to intervene, which allows the conflict to unravel on its own pace. After the examination of these four peculiarities of the Syrian crisis, an attempt to see them as special challenges that dictate a feasible and specific line of action for the near future is made throughout the part of the conclusion.   


2. FROM POLITICAL TO SECTARIAN

Whereas the religious element of the conflict is important, it falls short from providing a holistic picture of the roots of the civil war. Nonetheless, the shift of the conflict from political to sectarian terms is one of the main obstacles to its resolution. Following, a short overview of the religious composition of the country is given, the initial non-sectarian motives of the demonstrations are underlined and finally an attempt to explain the shift is made.   

2.1. Religious composition

Syria’s religious composition has always been complex both in substance and in time. For example, Christians used to form ¼ of the population, but due to migration and lower birthrate than among non-Christians, now they comprise only the 11% of the approximately 18 million current population. To understand the conflict, we need to keep in mind that the Alawite comprise only 12% of the population, while the Sunni population is as high as 69%.  It is also important to notice that the Alawite are gathered in the coastline, whereas the Sunni are scattered across the country. This affects our third argument on the complexity of the territorial division that will be addressed infra . Likewise, the fact that there are other minorities in addition to these main two adds to the complexity of the conflict. Furthermore, we shouldn’t neglect the ethnic minorities and especially the Kurds that are included in the Sunni population, but bare their own agenda. 

Source: Izady, 2000

The sectarian fault lines have been an additional factor of national tension, due to Assad’s strategy. The regime always relied on co-optation to retain its power, through the disproportionate dissemination of power to minorities like the Druze, the Ismailis and mostly the Alawite.  Thus, an overlap of sectarian and poverty boundaries can be found in Syria. Again, the sectarian angle does not cover the entire spectrum that led to the sparking of the Arab Spring, but it has been awaken during the conflict with detrimental effects.

2.2. Initial demands

The sectarian line that distributed power has at times been blurry. In addition to sectarian favoritism, Assad also used economic liberalization measures to expand his support base. The beneficiaries of this economic policy are found mostly within the Sunni urban upper middle class. Thus, a ‘military-mercantile complex’ is formed  emphasizing the classist rather than the sectarian roots of the uprising. This policy is symbolically detected in the marriage of Assad with Asma al-Akhras that comes from a Sunni business family from Homs.
When adding to the mix of the sectarian division the authoritarian character of the regime, the anti-developmental economic growth and the corruption of the local government, the initial call for social, economic and political change cannot but be seen as genuine. The first protests that broke out in March 2011 constituted a genuine demand for change vis-à-vis the emergency law, in force since 1963; the increase in income inequality among centre and periphery and the youth unemployment; the widespread faulty governance; and, least of all, the sectarian discrimination. Nonetheless, the initial demand of the Syrian people has been hijacked both by Assad himself and by extremists. The dangerous process that turned the initial call for social change into a civil war with a sectarian base follows.

2.3. Towards a sectarian confrontation 

The mobilization of these pre-existing cross-sectarian cleavages can be attributed to the deliberate strategy of Assad, the extremist parts of the opposition and the effects of the proxy war . Assad applied a threefold strategy to deal with the unrest of the Arab Spring. The strategy assured his quasi survival until today, while destroying the country in the process. First, the violent crackdown on the protests led to the militarization of the conflict by pushing the opposition towards a violent resistance.  Second, the minor political changes, such as the lift of the emergency law, did not prove a useful tool. It was too little too late and each liberal measure was cancelled by the violent suppression of the protests. 
The third tool was the most dangerous one. Assad launched a terror campaign, accusing the opposition of terrorism, emphasizing its Sunni nature and inducing fear to the minorities in order to retain their loyalty. This campaign included both harsh rhetoric and the use of paramilitary ‘self-defence’ groups from the Alawite community (shabiha). The mildest term that the President has used to refer to the opposition is ‘terrorists’. The atrocities perpetrated by the shabiha groups against Sunni communities guided the resentment for the regime against the Alawite minority as well. This technique chained the fate of the regime to the fate of the Alawite population.
As for the opposition, although its rhetoric is all inclusive, the atrocities committed on the ground cannot be overlooked. The increasingly empowered Salafist and al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist groups have been targeting Christian and Alawite minorities resurging the old sectarian divisions. The strengthening of this part of the opposition can largely be attributed to the proxy war character of the Syrian conflict, since outside support has also contributed to the sectarian aspect of the war. 
To sum up, the aforementioned techniques have turned the war against the regime into a war between communities. The parties of the conflict perceive the prevalence of the other as an existential threat to themselves. This zero-sum fight has a toxic effect on resolving the conflict and makes restoration almost impossible. Sectarianism has also contributed to the increase of regional tension and nurtures radicalization. A rise in mass atrocities must be expected, as long as the communities continue to see through the lenses of survival. 

3. A FRAGMENTED OPPOSITION WITHIN A DIVIDED STATE

Sectarian or not in nature, in any conflict it is important to identify the players to work towards its resolution. Beside Assad’s regime, it is not an easy task to identify the rest of the competing parties. Leaving aside foreign interests and the effects of the proxy character of the conflict, the Syrian opposition itself cannot be seen as a single actor. The level of fragmentation of the opposition is another reason why the Syrian crisis seems to be without an end in sight. A summary of the different blocs of the opposition is provided, while mostly the effects of this fragmentation are underlined and especially the current territorial division of the state of Syria is presented as a major impediment to restoration.

3.1. A fragmented opposition

The opposition is fragmented beyond a reasonable point. Its division affects both its political cohesion and its military front. Thus, one needs to consider both the fragmentation of the opposition (political aspect) and the one of the rebel forces (military power). Adding to the aforementioned complexity, the coalitions and the rebels themselves change sides so frequently that even the latest analysis runs the risk to be obsolete. 
As of December 2013, BBC counts 1.000 rebels’ groups that comprise about 100.000 fighters.  The main rebel coalitions are the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. Each one brings together many fragmented armed groups that are not necessarily controlled at all times by the leading coalition, since each group operates independently on local level. There are also about six main independent groups that have not joined a specific coalition, whereas the jihadists (ISIS, Khorasan group, al-Nursa front, etc) and the Kurdish group (Popular Protection Units) are likewise very important players. The flux of the situation is evident in the case of the Islamic State that counted barely 5.000 fighters at the beginning of the year and now CIA has reported that the number has reached 30.000 . 
As for the political leaders, the initial Syrian National Council was replaced by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in November 2012. However, some of the defaults of the Syrian National Council still persist, such as resignations, accusations of international interference etc. The Syrian National Council still functions within the sphere of the National Coalition, as one of its most influential blocs. Disagreements are evident, as for example the Council’s abstention from the 2013 talks in Geneva, while the Coalition participated. The Kurdish Supreme Committee has also joined the National Coalition, but largely preserves its independence. Finally, the National Co-ordination Committee criticizes the Coalition and acts on its own.  
The plurality in the political branch of the opposition is not necessarily problematic on its own, especially since there seems to be an overall agreement in important issues, such as the non-sectarian character of the opposition. The diversity of political voices could reflect and work as the base for a new democratic Syria with a multiparty political system. Be that as it may, one feature is counterproductive for the revolution. Statements of the rebel groups criticizing the political leadership point to the risk of arbitrariness of the military sector and undermine the commitments of their political head. For example, the non-sectarian character of the opposition agreed by all political forces is not respected on the ground by the military branch of the opposition and its extremist elements.    

3.2. The effects of fragmentation 

The unprecedented level of fragmentation found within the Syrian opposition undermines both the ending of the war through military prevalence as well as the option of a political transition.  The division of the rebels and their horizontal struggle for the representation of the opposition seriously mangle their overall military capacity and deprive them of the opportunity to prevail on the ground. Moreover, the lack of cohesion strips them of legitimacy and does not provide them with the necessary stand to negotiate a political deal and furthermore assure its implementation. Additionally, the rise of radical elements within the opposition has both military and political negative implications. It alienates the international support in kind (provision of money or weapons) as well as political terms, while it strengthens the regime’s support, through the fear it induces to minorities. Finally, the ‘importation’ of foreign fighters to man the radical militias alters the population landscape and, in addition to the multiple divisions of Syrians, complicates any future political transition and reconciliation process. 
       
3.3. A once nation-state 

In parallel to the aforementioned negative effects, the absence of two main parties in this conflict has also led to the de facto multi-territorial deconstruction of Syria. The presence of multi-players has resulted in a complex topographic configuration. Four powers can claim effective control on parts of the country: Assad’s regime, Western Kurdistan, the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army. The level of control each own can assert on the ground varies widely. 
Syria al-Assad holds four types of territories distinguished by the level of control the regime has over them. Its hinterland is concentrated in the Mediterranean coast line that comprises mostly Alawite population. The main national corridor from south to the north through Damascus to Aleppo is the so-called occupied land of the regime. It comprises expelled, defeated and co-opted populations, but the grip over these areas is costly. Within these areas there are some with a vassal status, such as the Druze region in the south and some Christian villages. The power of the regime over them depends on the success or not of the opposition to eradicate its radical elements. Finally, the regime also holds some outposts in diverse locations in Syria. Those are mostly military positions or besieged minority cities. 
The Western Kurdistan extends to the Syrian land that borders with Turkey and has declared its autonomy since November 2013. It is controlled by the Democratic Union Party and despite its geographical fragmentation it has a centralized power structure. The Islamic State, ISIS or Da ‘ish has surged from the eastern border with Iraq up until the Turkish border through the Euphrates valley. Especially after the declaration of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has grown stronger and its territorial base has been expanding ever since. Finally, the areas controlled by the opposition are found in the northwest and southwest of the country and lack unified control. This lack of control leads to chaos and renders the stability that the regime can provide quite appealing.

Source: ACAPS, 2014

The map reflects the new quasi-states that have divided the once nation-state of Syria. This territorial fragmentation that adds to the opposition’s fragmentation makes the Syrian crisis even more difficult to approach. Due to the way the different territorial controls inter-mingle with one another, the option of cessation is not on the table. Overall, the fragmentation and the lack of territorial control by the opposition hinders a possible victory and the complex territorial division of Syria narrows the available options for the resolution of the conflict.           

4. ON FOREIGN INTERVENTION

The discussion on the possibility of foreign intervention is on-going over the last two years. The debate is important because foreign intervention would constitute a game changer and would most probably provide the necessary leverage for the toppling of Assad’s regime. So far it seems that as long as Assad is keeping the diplomatic channels open, only an intervention targeting ISIS is plausible.

4.1. Why not?

One should, however, reflect on the reasons the international community has shown such restraint on this specific crisis in contrary, for example, to the Libyan case. A mere reference to the veto power exercised by Russia and backed up by China in the Security Council is not a holistic approach, though it does reflect a divided international community. The answer is more complex and entails both international and national considerations. 
The fact that Syria has become a battlefield to the proxy war  led by Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah on the one hand, and the West, the Gulf, Israel and Turkey on the other, is definitely a factor that stalls intervention.  As for the Libyan case, perhaps its precedent is also one of the reasons the Syrian crisis is being addressed so prudently. The controversy over the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was raised when some Member States denounced the far-reaching implementation of the 1973 Resolution  that first allowed the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya and then was used to oust Gaddafi. Especially Russia , along with other mostly developing countries, such as Brazil, feared the setting of a precedent that would allow the international community to change regimes. As already seen, the fragmentation of the opposition and the nourishment of radical elements in it, have also alienated the necessary international support for an intervention. Other elements to take under consideration are the tough military challenge, the difficult geography and the complex demography of Syria . 
But most importantly, regarding the inaction of the USA, the new doctrine of foreign policy that Obama brought with his election should be noted. Although still trying to find a balance between realism and idealism, the new doctrine has been dominated by the initial pre-electoral promises on the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.  The special gravity of this policy is well reflected on the ‘redline’ incident. The use of chemical weapons was set by the President himself as a ‘redline’ for the USA,  it was soon crossed by Assad (or the opposition) and yet it did not result into an intervention. 
Prime Minister David Cameron brought the issue before the House of Commons and for the first time the loyal ally of US refused to back up a possible US led intervention.  Either way, the US Congress also refused to grant its authorization for a military strike against Syria in the same period. It should be noted that President Obama had already created a precedent of US hostilities with no prior congressional authority in the case of Libya,  but he chose not to use this political maneuver in the case of Syria. Thus, the August 2013 chemical attacks were dealt with a complex operation supervised by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, with the mediation of Russia that provided the USA with an opt-out and yet without intervention.

4.2. Effects

Since this ‘opportunity’ of intervening was passed by the USA, it is evident that internal issues of the Middle East are no longer high on the American agenda  or that of its allies. Terrorism, on the other hand, is still a top priority. Hence, the US air strikes campaign (supported by Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) was launched only after the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS.  The current level of military engagement of this initiative has little to no effect on the ground. This, as was the case with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, can be attributed to the insurgent tactics used by ISIS. In any case, the eradication of ISIS does not resolve the Syrian crisis. First of all, this does not seem to be an easy task, but even if it is accomplished, it would simplify the crisis, but it would not ease the tension between the regime and the opposition. Therefore, the non-agreement of the international community on intervening and the reluctance of the USA – the sole player that could push for a unilateral intervention – to directly intervene in the conflict are both impediments to its timely resolution. After all, US new policy initiated with the launch of the air strikes campaign has as sole goal the prevention of ISIS’s threat and not the resolution of the Syrian conflict.     

5. CONCLUSION 

The sectarianism of the conflict presented supra has long rooted by now. As already explained, the zero-sum stakes for each party makes the prevalence of one of them difficult to attain without running the serious risk of genocide. The sectarian aspect dictates the necessity of a power-sharing government as the only feasible solution. This renders the presence of Assad or some kind of continuance of his regime at least useful or even necessary, so as to stop the spiral of chaos which Syria has been free-falling into.  
The high level of fragmentation and the predominance of radical elements within the opposition hinder the possibility to overthrow the regime and establish a new Syria under the moderate opposition. The opposition supported from the West has lost its advantage and the momentum for a victory, while the caliphate established by ISIS, though it is perhaps sustainable, it is highly unlikely it would be tolerated by the international community. Hence, the overthrow of the regime is not feasible in the near future with the current balance of power.    
The solution of a power-sharing government is also dictated by the fragmentation of the opposition and the territorial status quo that has segmented Syria. The precedent of Kosovo in the international arena is not a feasible option in the case of Syria. The map that follows represents the mosaic of new states that would be established in case of such a strategy. We would be talking of at least four fragile states in constant dispute with each other. Additionally, all of them would have implications for the wider region and would derange the balance of power in the Middle East, starting from Iraq-ISIS, Turkey-Kurds etc. Thus, we see again that the resolution of the conflict most likely rests in a transitional all-inclusive government that could have a chance to preserve Syria as one state. The little control that the opposition asserts over its territories adds to this argument, as it reveals Assad’s rule as a factor of stability.

Source: Wright, 2013


As for the US policy shift, it can be attributed to a new motive, counter-terrorism, and not to a second thought on regime change. Thus, it should be expected that the air strikes or any further military intervention will be limited to the eradication of ISIS, as a threat to the West, and not to the resolution of the Syrian crisis as a whole. Moreover, the rest of the international community is incapacitated by the division it has found itself into and no major move can be expected without US taking the lead. Without military foreign backing, it is unlikely to see the opposition prevail and the political foreign support is doomed to result at best in a transitional government that will include elements of the old, yet relevant, regime.    
All four peculiarities of the Syrian conflict that were examined indicate that a transitional all-inclusive government is the most plausible answer to the Syrian conundrum. The sectarian polarization of the conflict requires a diplomatic solution to avoid genocide; the fragmentation of the opposition makes the scenario of a victory on its part highly unlikely; the level of territorial division of the once-nation state of Syria removes cessation from the equitation; and a foreign intervention can be foreseen only to eradicate ISIS and not to choose sides between Assad and the moderate opposition. It is unfortunate, but highly probable that the Syrian people, after having endured all this tragedy, will have to see the opposition at the same table with Assad.    

To those for whom the greatest threat to the future of international order is the use of force in the absence of a Security Council mandate, one might ask -- not in the context of Kosovo -- but in the context of Rwanda: If, in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of states had been prepared to act in defense of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt Council authorization, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold? 

Secretary-General Kofi Annan


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