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A Split Syria

Middle East Task Force Director Leila Hilal assesses the tumultuous nation in a Q&A.
June 1, 2012 |
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On May 25, gangs of primarily government-affiliated gunmen killed more than 100 people – including 49 children- in the Syrian town of Houla, The massacre ignited global outrage: Diplomats this week have demanded that Syrian President Bashar al Assad halt the violence that has plagued the country since last spring, and pressed him to implement the U.N. Security Council cease-fire plan that was supposed to take effect on April 12.

It’s now been a week since the massacre, and the international community is at a stalemate over how to address the crisis. Leila Hilal, the director of New America’s Middle East Task Force, analyzed the volatile geopolitical situation in the Q&A below, highlighting crucial aspects of Syria’s past and present – and predicting what the future could hold for the nation.

What is the situation on the ground in Syria today?

Leila Hilal: The Syrian uprising entered its 14th month in May. The insurgency is loosely organized under the Free Syrian Army, which includes defected army soldiers and armed citizens. Despite the United Nations Security Council’s endorsement of the six-point Kofi Annan peace plan, which calls for a total cessation of violence and the withdrawal of government forces from population centers, shelling and assaults continue on the ground. While violence had decreased in the initial days following the introduction of the Annan cease-fire plan on April 12, over the past week intensive shelling in Homs, Hama and other provinces has resumed and government-perpetrated killing of civilians has spiked in horrendous ways. Demonstrations take place daily and have started to spread to Aleppo, the second largest urban center in Syria. Commercial strikes have occurred in the center of Damascus. This Friday saw mass waves of protests throughout the country in response to the killings.

Information coming from Syria has been hard to verify due to heavy restrictions on foreign media access and internal repression, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based NGO, puts the number killed since March 2011 at 13,004 (as of May 27), with at least 25,000 still in detention. There is extreme and widespread torture in government prisons. Around 500,000 Syrians are known to have been internally displaced by the conflict. The health of the nation and its economy is also rapidly declining. Syria’s state institutions are dissolving; the country fragmenting. Bureaucracies outside of the two main urban areas of Aleppo and Damascus are mostly non-functional. The government has lost full or partial control of several areas of the country, with some towns having conducted elections and all attempting to fulfill government services.

The Europeans and Americans have imposed comprehensive sanctions on the Assad regime. Oil and tourism revenues have dried up, but public finances exist. Military and state employees continue to collect salaries and currency reserves were last estimated to be at around $11-12 billion. The regime continues to be backed by Iran, Russia, China and Lebanon’s dominant Hezbollah. No major military or government defections have occurred.

How would you describe the conflict in Syria? Is it evolving into a civil war?

LH: The country is definitely in a civil war between the regime and a disjointed, but undeterred internal opposition; The question now is whether it has become a sectarian conflict, I think the answer is no but there are sectarian dimensions that will likely become more pronounced in the days ahead.

Syria’s population is predominately Arab Sunni. The government and security sectors are dominated by the Assad family and other Alawites – a minority sect of around 12 percent of Syria’s population. The Alawites were historically marginalized in Syria, but promoted by the French during the colonial era. After Hafez el Assad rose to power in 1970 following a military coup, he divided the armed forces and placed family in positions of power, retaining tight – mostly Alawite – control over security and intelligence. The Alawite were also granted economic privileges. Although Syrian society was not formerly divided along sectarian lines before the uprising, the regime’s actions and anti-opposition propaganda has exploited minority fears, suggesting that their survival depends on the regime’s existence.

Additionally, the government has deployed armed gangs of mostly Alawite origin (“Shabiha”) to aid their repression of the uprising. Human rights groups have confirmed that the Shabiha were responsible for the Houla massacre on May 25 when 109 people, including 49 children, were killed in their homes. Although not the first such killings by the Shabiha, the severity of the incident provoked severe reactions amongst Syrians, including unconfirmed reports of reprisal attacks on Alawites. Another incident during which 13 laborers were executed at a government checkpoint on Thursday will further inflame the situation.
After the Houla killings, U.N.-Arab League Joint Envoy, Kofi Annan, said that violence in Syria had reached a "tipping point." Is this true? Will this massacre inspire the international community to act more than they have?

LH: Kofi Annan’s statement was intended to signal to the Syrian government, the armed rebels and most likely countries providing material support to one or the other that if they do not abandon violence the country will descend into deeper strife from which it is unlikely to emerge intact.

The Houla incident has increased pressure on Western states who have opposed the Assad regime to act but there still is no appetite for military intervention from the US, Turkey or NATO. Western governments and Japan collectively expelled Syrian diplomats from their countries immediately following the incident and are likely to take other measures in the coming weeks. The EU, for instance, called for more sanctions. Meanwhile there will also probably be increased quiet effort to arm the rebels led primarily by Saudi Arabia and Qatar with Turkish involvement.

What are the best options for the U.S. in responding to the crisis? Should we start to think seriously about military intervention?

LH: The Syrian opposition has consistently called on the US to take action. With prospects of a regional conflagration, the US government is concerned about stability and impact on its geopolitical strategic interests. Recent statements from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin E. Dempsey, suggest that despite significant reservations, the US is at least examining military options and probably has been doing so for a while. But without an international mandate it is highly unlikely the US will intervene militarily, particularly before November. Kofi Annan’s plan – or other diplomatic platform – will remain the stated framework for the time being.

How do you see this conflict panning out? What does the future hold for Syria?

LH: There is no indication that the Assad government will step aside under the current conditions or that the opposition will forgo its revolution. The likelihood is that the civil war will intensify with increased communal sectarian strife. How long President Bashar al- Assad can survive and the country’s future transition depends on several variables. These include continued Russian and Iranian support, high level defections, international intervention, financial sources, and the cohesiveness, effectiveness and reach of the internal and external opposition.

What's at stake for the region? How are other countries in the region responding – and what impact is the conflict having on them?

LH: Proxy wars for hegemony are being played out in Syria by the major external actors backing the regime and armed oppositions. A conflagration along these lines could pull Lebanon and Iraq squarely into the conflict. Should the US become involved on the ground, its geopolitical strategic interests could directly influence the direction of Syria’s eventual transition. Turkey and the Kurds of the region also have tremendous stakes in how the conflict evolves and Syria’s future. Given these dynamics, a political transition backed by a strategic national opposition would present a counterweight to the proxy conflicts and enable prospects for an inclusive, democratic transition in the future.