Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Syria: Breaking the Deadlock

As Syrian students return to class for another school year amidst the turbulence of the continued government crackdown, the regime’s efforts at quelling the uprising have reached new levels of intensity. The seventh month of protests have seen security forces raiding houses all over the country, crashing into homes searching for protest organisers, and continuing to use massive force against the people. Where the crackdown used to meet protestors in the street, now sudden and unexpected midnight raids take place, where military units storm towns and villages in an effort to nip unrest in the bud. Reports of military defections have also got regime leaders worried, and so concerted efforts to find defected military personnel in countryside villages and farms have been a priority.

As the reality of the movement starts to hit home in this new climate of uncertainty and fear, there have been mixed opinions on how to break the deadlock. Protestors continue to call for limited regional help, insisting that the UN enforces a no-fly zone rather than permit a full military intervention. Whilst the revolutionary fervour I witnessed a few months ago is perhaps waning, the belief that Syrians should do this ‘on their own’ is alive and well. The plan – according to one dissident – is that after a no fly zone is enforced, the army would turn on the regime, and join the protestors in ousting Assad and his allies.

Unfortunately it is a little more complicated than that. In the first instance (as Admiral Mullen made clear to Congress over Libya), a no fly zone is, by definition, military intervention. Who enforces the no fly zone? What can the Syrian air force expect if they break the UN ruling? Shooting a plane out of the sky is an act of war, and would certainly be interpreted as such by the regime. The government’s propaganda machine would go into overdrive, branding foreign agents as anti Syrian imperialists who kill innocent Syrians. This argument still holds water with a large proportion of society, and must be taken into consideration. A no fly zone is a major step – it’s not simply a matter of asking the regime to comply – and in itself would not be enough to stop a government which has shown in no uncertain terms that it does not respect international law.

The assumption that army soldiers would defect on mass should such a ruling be made is also debatable. Whilst a number of officers are said to have grouped in both Turkey and Jordan, orchestrating attacks on security forces and coordinating the protection of some protests in towns closer to their respective borders, it is unlikely that the army would defect and turn into a benign ‘guardian’ of the people as the Egyptian military has styled itself. This is because the army is the regime in Syria; it is a mistake to regard the Assad regime as anything other than a military dictatorship. It is not just a tribal or filial group that runs the country as in Libya, or a bureaucratic elite as in Egypt. It is a sectarian military leadership, built on solid co-dependent networks of complicity which ensure deep and long-lasting loyalty.

Of the 300,000 or so regular soldiers in Syria, nearly a third are Alawi, and whilst presupposing their support for the regime would be an oversimplification, virtually all senior military figures are Alawi officials with too much to lose to turn back now. Just as protestors argue that they have gone too far to abandon the cause now for fear of reprisal, the same can be said of these army figures who must fear similar consequences from the opposition.

It is unwise to make sweeping predictions about events which form part of a greater regional movement that no one saw coming. But we shouldn’t assume a sectarian civil war is inevitable; we should give Syrians more credit than that. This ongoing stalemate is only resulting in catastrophic loss of life – much more than ineffective sanctions or simple understandings of what no fly zones mean are needed. Turkey has shown signs of its willing to take the lead in more serious action, and this would provide the opposition with a real focal point,  providing disaffected soldiers with a clear side to join. All this would clearly require Chinese and Russian agreement, and Israel may be unwilling to unleash the kind of chaos it sees in a post Assad Syria, but the government has already started a war – a war against its own people. And its time to end it.


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Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo