Syrian Winter

Despite violent and wide-spread protests, the Syrian regime’s elites – the extended Assad clan and its Alawite base – remain solid.


by Moshe Ben Yitzhak for The International Chronicles

When the mosques empty out after prayers on Friday, there will be massive demonstrations against the regime Bashar al-Assad. News reports the next day – based on accounts posted via the social media – will inform the world of the body count. Analysts will inform us that the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria is teetering on the brink of collapse. Another group of analysts will assure us that the ‘House of Assad’ has a solid foundation. In the meantime, the Syrian 4th and 11th Republican Guard divisions race around the country repeating this scenario week after week.

As best as anyone can tell, approximately 2500 people have been killed in Syria over the past six months. Exactly how many were protesters, members of the various state security forces, rebelling members of the state security forces and innocent bystanders (a rare commodity anywhere, these days) is unknown. That more will die is almost a certainty, given that the forces opposing the Assad regime have yet to coalesce into a unified front, similar to the National Transitional Council in Libya.

Assad’s survival is based on the following elements:
  • unity of the regime elite
  • unity of the security forces
  • the support of allies
  • a weak international response
  • and a divided opposition

The regime’s elites – the extended Assad clan and its Alawite base – remain solid. Terminating the rule of Bashar and attempting to replace him with a “reformer” from within their ranks would only hasten the fall of the Alawites from power.  Upper and middle class Sunnis (74% of the population) and Christians (10%), currently have more to lose than gain, so their support – in the short-to-medium term is firm.

The Syrian 4th and 11th Republican Guard divisions have been tasked with putting down the unrest.  Manpower in these two elite divisions is drawn heavily from the Alawite and Druze (~5%) sectors. Almost all flag officers are members of the ruling Baath Party, as political connections are the second-best way (after belonging to the Alawite denomination) of assuring career success. In addition to the regular army, Syria also has at least three other security agencies are known to exist: Idarat al-Amn al-'Amm (General Intelligence Directorate) Amn al-Dawla (State Security) Idarat Amn al-Siyassi (Political Security Directorate), as well as police. All are heavily politicized, with Alawites holding many of the key positions.

By and far, Syria’s strongest ally is Iran. The Islamic Republic has invested heavily in Syria over the last decade. The two countries coordinate diplomatic policies. Syria acts as a supply base for Iran’s other regional ally, Hezbollah (based next-door in Syria-dominated Lebanon). Iran is rumoured to have financed the construction of the Syrian nuclear reactor that Israel allegedly destroyed in September 2007. Iran is not going to willingly part with Assad, despite official Shi’a condemnation of the Alawite sect as heretical.
Support from Iran’s other regional allies – Hezbollah and Hamas (in Gaza) is strong. Syria controls Hezbollah’s supply lines and arsenal of long-range missiles, and anecdotal reports have placed Hezbollah’s paramilitary units inside Syria assisting the regime. Hamas’ leader, Khaled Meshaal, lives in Damascus.

Has the international response to Assad’s use of violence been weak? Considering that NATO (with contingents from Jordan, Qatar and the U.A.E.) flew over 19,000 missions in Libya – including over 7500 ground strikes – as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the paper airplanes launched at Syria are hardly impressive. The US and European Union (E.U.) have slowly been freezing the bank accounts of the leadership circle around Bashar al-Assad and imposing travel bans on them. Of course, when putting down an insurrection, one rarely has time for a quick trip to Disney World.

The EU is getting closer to taking some more serious economic sanctions, banning the import of Syrian petroleum and petroleum products. As the E.U. is the destination of 95% of Syria’s petro exports, and these account for about one-quarter of the county’s GDP, such a move would (at least theoretically) have more affect than cutting off Mrs. Assad’s MasterCard™.  However, as Saddam Hussein proved for over a decade, sanctions can be evaded – and quite profitably.

Thus, the first three priorities for Bashar Assad – unity of the regime elite, unity of the security forces and the support of allies – are holding. The “international” outcry is primarily from the U.S., the E.U., and Syria’s long-time foes in the region (although Israel has been largely quiet on the issue). Russia and China would not – at this point in time – acquiesce on a resolution similarly to UNSC 1973 that imposed the no-fly zone in Libya, meaning that UN-approved military action in Syria is a non-starter. The result is that the only meaningful factor that Assad must contend is the opposition itself is opponents – and his opponents are fragmented.

The traditional Islamic factions have failed to attract significant support from the Christian, Druze and Kurdish sectors that view Islamic fundamentalism with great suspicion. Indeed, like the Alawites, the Druze are considered a heretical sect, and thus cannot be dissuaded from supporting Assad’s regime. Similarly, the Kurds – although growing increasingly vocal over the last six months – have reason to distrusts Syrian nationalists. The small exile community in America and Europe is making in-roads, albeit with the Americans and Europeans. Until the hodge-podge of students, Islamists, nationalists, and sundry advocates of democracy unite their efforts, there is little recourse for those who hope Assad’s regime will soon collapse.
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commented 2012-03-23 13:32:24 -0400 · Flag
Comment to “Syrian Winter”
It seems like Syria is destined to descend into the same chaos that Libya has had to endure, only it will be 100 times more bloody and far more dangerous to the stability of the ME.
02.11.2011 02:26
2500 killed in Syria over the past 6 months but isnt it the Iranian mullahs who are shooting themselves in the foot by backing their local client Assad?
14.09.2011 11:26
published this page in LATEST POSTS 2012-03-23 13:30:42 -0400