To most people, the current conflict in Syria must seem like an impenetrable morass. A government is continuously attacking its own cities, possibly blowing up its own oil pipelines (leading to some striking images), to snuff out an uprising that may be composed of pro-democracy demonstrators, a disgruntled religious minority, an isolated group of anti-government rebels, or even members of al-Qaeda (or all of the above). The Huffington Post likened the conflict to the war in Bosnia in the 90s. Even some very well-informed observers have had difficulty discerning what the anti-government side is all about.
Nevertheless, some things are clear. This is not a sectarian conflict. Even though the armed uprisings started in mainly Sunni areas—in particular Homs’ Sunni neighborhoods—it has spread beyond Sunnis. Notably, Mezze, a predominantly Alawi area in Damascus that sits in the shadow of the presidential palace, saw large anti-government demonstrations only a couple weeks ago. These demonstrations led to isolated confrontations with regime troops and the blockade of this relatively wealthy an important part of the capital. There are sectarian voices within anti-government circles to be sure; Assad’s patronage of Alawis smacks of cronyism and favoritism which cannot sit well with those who already view them and their relationship to power as unfair. But there are many Sunnis (and Shi’is and Christians) who fervently support the regime. If anything, religious affiliation seems to be more determinative of receiving a violent crackdown by the government than of participation in the uprising.
This is not the work of al-Qaeda. Might there be al-Qaeda members taking part in the uprising? It’s possible; al-Qaeda certainly has no love for the Assad regime. But al-Qaeda, a tiny group whose concerns tend to go far beyond whether or not Bashar al-Assad is president, does not do things like organize protests and recruit defecting military officers for rebel forces, which are the main anti-government activities thus far. It makes far more sense that the government is using the threat of al-Qaeda as a rhetorical tool to keep out foreign intervention, in the hopes that Western politicians would be loathe to do anything that could be perceived as supporting terrorism. Indeed, it took the Syrian government all of 20 minutes to publicly declare the December suicide bombings in Damascus as the work of al-Qaeda. (Bombings that the government absolutely, positively, in no way was responsible for, even though they happened in front of state security offices on a heavily patrolled street the day observers from the Arab League were in Damascus.)
This is not an ideological struggle. The justifications on both sides boil down to ‘the regime needs to go’/‘no, it doesn’t’. The anti-government side, disjointed and incoherent as they are, has not put forward any sort of rationale beyond the removal of the regime. For support, they point to the actions of the regime itself—decades of rampant corruption, brutality, violence and oppression, new examples of which are popping up by the day. (Last week, Red Crescent workers were denied entrance into parts of Homs by the government on the grounds that it was unsafe. Why was it unsafe? Landmines.) One can assume that democracy is a major goal of the uprising (and exile groups have put forward this rationale), but this aim seems to have been subordinated to simple anti-regime rhetoric. The Assad government, for its part, asserts that the opposition is merely composed of terrorists and foreign agents provocateurs and has not legitimacy, and that the regime is necessary for Syria’s stability.
It is this last point which I think gets to the heart of the conflict. While it seems that the opposition is pro-democracy (which makes sense given the context of the Arab Spring), any substantive demands by the opposition have literally been drowned out under government shelling. What began as simple protests a la Tunisia and Egypt quickly turned violent, violence initiated by the regime. When the protests in the town of Daraa—the first in Syria—arose a year ago, the demonstrators were calling for political freedom and an end to government corruption. Within days, five people had been killed and the town had been sealed off by security forces. 33 people were arrested in Damascus. The regime justifies such actions as necessary for ensuring the country’s stability, yet this justification is circular: the government uses violence to stop protests from becoming violent, then uses the ensuing violence as a pretext for further crackdowns.
In truth, the regime’s primary objective is self-preservation. Stability, as far as the government is concerned, means the elimination of any and all dissent. Deviation from the official line is considered a threat to Assad’s rule, and is thus snuffed out using any means available to the regime. This seemingly all-encompassing purpose has led to a certain cynical political arithmetic. Assad enjoys significant, legitimate popular support. Even now, he could very well win a fair election. This support, however, is by no means guaranteed, and the gradual spread of protests around the country—particularly in the capital—shows the very real possibility of the majority of the country turning against him and his regime. This becomes more likely the longer the violence persists. But if the government’s use of force is viewed as warranted, then people will give him more leeway to act. Therefore, Assad must present the repression of the protests as a justifiable reaction to a real threat to the country in order to balance his use of violence against popular concerns about the nature of the regime’s rule. The allusions to al-Qaeda and foreign intervention are simply ploys. The gestures towards political reform made in recent weeks are merely window-dressing. (And Assad has made similar gestures before.) If he can convince enough Syrians that the violence by the government is justified—necessary, even—then he can continue the crackdown without losing too much support. If not, his position will eventually erode.
How this struggle between a regime bent on saving itself and the popular uprising determined to weaken it will play out is not clear. What is clear is that it won’t be good, and it won’t be quick. It also leaves very few options for those outside of Syria, something I will address in a future post.