Thousands of people in Syria have been killed, injured, displaced or detained in a series of protests against the Syrian government since mid-March which have been ruthlessly quelled by the government. How is this uprising different and where are we now?
Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Syria is composed of a complicated mix of sects and minority groups. Its ruling elite belongs to the minority Alawi branch of Shia Islam, while most of the population are Sunni Arab Muslims. It is also home to Kurds, Christians, Druze and other Shias.
Whereas what happens in Libya may have relatively little political spillover in the Arab world, much more is at stake in Syria in which numerous foreign entities – from Hezbollah to the USA – stand to be affected.
The crackdown has been more brutal than in Egypt and Tunisia. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says security services have killed more than 2,700 people, using tactics that may amount to crimes against humanity.
Activists and human rights groups put that number as high as 5,300. The government says many of those who died were members of the security forces, and Al Jazeera reports a number as high as 700.
But violence is not as widespread as it may appear on TV. The capital Damascus, and Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo, remain calm, with little sign of instability.
In those cities, “life continues as normal,” said Ben Negus, a programme officer at the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) who participated in a UN mission to Syria in late August. “Shops are open. Cars are on the street. Kids are going to school. Hospitals are dealing with patients. Life goes on.”
Nationwide, there are roadblocks on the main arteries into cities and travel between cities is difficult. But within towns or cities, movement is fairly free.
“It’s easy to assume the problems are widespread,” Negus told IRIN, but “the violence that has been carried out is… more targeted.” Still, he said it is difficult to ascertain the level of insecurity across the country.
The protests are much more localized than they were in Egypt or Tunisia, often composed of just a few hundred people and lasting less than an hour before fizzling out, said one aid worker in Damascus who preferred anonymity.
“I have seen videos that were shot in certain places that I know did not last for 10 minutes,” he said. This may be in an effort by protesters to evade security services.
The Syrian government
President al-Assad was popular when he came to power in 2000, replacing his father, Hafez, who had ruled Syria for three decades. Their Alawi roots are from small villages in the mountains – and when Hafez al-Assad first came to power, he challenged the urban elite of the Ottoman era and the French colonial mandate, representing the marginalized countryside. (Under Ottoman rule, Alawis – like the Druze and the Christians – were rarely given positions of power or influence). But Bashar al-Assad grew up in Damascus and became part of a new, increasingly sectarian urban elite. Still, he seemed to genuinely want reform.
Even as recently as January, he described the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia as being the result of decades of stagnation in the Middle East. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said: “We have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions… When you close your mind as an official you cannot upgrade.”
One Syrian government official told the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) in February: “We have been strong in politics but weak on the rule of law, fighting corruption and so on. Many already are opposed to any change, arguing that it would send a signal of weakness. I disagree: it sends a signal of strength. In our meetings, there has been a tendency to merely insist that we are very different from Egypt. But if it is a wake-up call in the region, why not be awoken by it?”
There are two camps within al-Assad’s government – reformists and conservatives, and analysts say early in his tenure the president became beholden to the conservatives. “People around him with entrenched interests were apprehensive and prevailed upon him and clamped down on [reform],” Jubin Goodarzi, professor of international relations at Webster University in Geneva, told IRIN.
The mostly Alawi security services have been the driving force of the current crackdown. But the ICG said in a July report that even among this elite group, there was frustration with the status quo.
“There’s been a generalization that because an Alawi elite is in power, all Alawis have done very well for themselves,” Chris Phillips, a Syria analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, who lived in Syria for several years, told IRIN. “There are large segments of very poor Alawis in villages in the mountains near Latakia and Banyas who have seen no benefits from 40 years of an Alawi president.”
The government has not deployed the army to the same extent, probably because it cannot trust the mostly Sunni soldiers’ loyalties.
Initially inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters wanted reforms that would increase political freedom and move the country towards democracy. The government eventually introduced small reforms, but they were too little too late, and its violent response to the demonstrations galvanized more people to join the protesters, whose goal now appears to be complete regime change.
Frustration also stemmed from a liberalization process begun by al-Assad that increasingly shifted Syria’s economy away from the socialist model and created an elite class, mostly linked to the regime, which Phillips said began to benefit from cronyism – “people related to the regime would get all the contracts.”
Most of the opposition are peaceful protesters – mainly young, lower-class Sunni Arab men (about 60 percent of the population are Sunni Arabs, while another 15 percent are Sunni Kurds), though the organizers tend to be better educated and middle class. The opposition has crossed lines of religion, sect and ideology, but for the most part Christians reportedly fear the kind of regime that could replace al-Assad; the Druze are on the fence; while the Kurds support the uprising.
There are several different opposition groups, from “local coordination committees” and the Syrian Revolution General Commission organizing protests within Syria, to diaspora organizations. But the various groups are not yet united. The Syrian National Council, recently formed in Turkey, is the first major attempt to bring all the opposition under one umbrella, but it has faced some resistance from the grassroots organizations on the ground. Currently, protests in different parts of the country are not coordinated by any central body, though there is communication among activists in different cities and national committees.
Analysts say government allegations about the opposition – that armed Islamists, criminal traffickers and groups backed by other countries are among the forces opposing al-Assad – are not necessarily false. Others argue the violence is not organized, but rather “locals who were just fed up with the violence being meted out to them by the regime picked up guns that they had stored for years and started shooting back,” as Phillips put it. Part of the armed element is the defectors, but many of them do not have weapons.
Either way, “there’s more to it than meets the eye,” said Goodarzi. “One cannot just dismiss reports about armed elements… engaging and killing security forces and personnel.”
Activists say soldiers who died were killed by security forces because they refused to shoot protesters – not by armed gangs, as the government alleges. But according to the ICG, many Syrians still mistrust the opposition, which is not growing as fast as it did in Egypt and Tunisia.
“The number of people participating in the uprising is rather exaggerated,” said Khair El-Din Haseeb, executive committee chairman of the Beirut-based Centre for Arab Unity Studies.
“The opposition lies sometimes even more than the government,” the aid worker in Damascus who preferred anonymity said, adding that the alleged shelling of the western coastal city of Latakia in August from the sea – trumpeted by the opposition as an example of the regime’s brutality – “was a pile of rubbish. It never really happened.”
He said people set tyres on fire on top of buildings to create smoke that would suggest a bombing. OCHA’s Negus said there were no craters in Latakia when he visited the city. Other UN officials, including the UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said there were conflicting reports, but that he himself did not see any evidence of the event having taken place. One UN official suggested the opposition’s version of events could be part of “the whole media side to conflict”.
In April, Washington said Tehran had been helping Damascus put down the Syrian uprising and has placed sanctions on members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for their role in the crackdown.
“The government in Tehran is going to do everything it can to help support and prop up the Assad regime,” said Goodarzi, author of Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East. That help includes things like riot gear and advice on how to monitor the internet, but nothing more than a few advisers on the ground, he added.
Activists have similar convictions that Hezbollah, the influential Shia militant group in Lebanon, is supporting the Syrian government, on whom it depends for weapons.
Other analysts discount this: “Why would the Syrians need snipers from Hezbollah? They trained Hezbollah snipers,” said Timur Goksel, who was a senior adviser to the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon for many years, before joining the American University of Beirut as an instructor in Middle East conflict.
Without ruling out the possibility that Israel could be arming the opposition, some analysts argue that the West is actually ambivalent about the situation in Syria.
“I don’t think the main outside countries, like the US and Israel, would like the fall of the Syrian regime, because they are not sure of the alternative, and they are unduly concerned that it might be an Islamic regime,” said the Beirut-based academic Haseeb. “But at the same time, they want to weaken the present regime so that they can more easily deal with Bashar al-Assad.”
Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting scholar at The Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, sees the status quo as in Israel’s interest. “The border between Syria and Israel is very peaceful and they don’t want to see any change in Damascus.”
Regional powers, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, also have stakes in this conflict, preferring a Sunni government in Syria. Syrian communities in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and even the Gulf could be involved in funnelling weapons or money into the country to support the opposition, the aid worker said. But both Saudi Arabia and Turkey will be weary to be seen as the cause of a civil war.
The current situation is a bit of a stalemate, and could last for several months. “The opposition cannot bring down the regime and the regime cannot silence the opposition,” Haseeb said.
What turned the tide in Egypt was the army’s support for the protesters. So far, there have only been low-level individual defections in Syria, and there are no concrete signs of a split in the security services. The regime, at this point, remains firmly in control.
Major powers, like the US, France and Britain, have so far shown no interest in another military intervention. According to the ICG, such intervention “could unleash the very sectarian civil war the international community wishes to avoid, provoke further instability in an already unstable neighbourhood and be a gift to a regime that repeatedly has depicted the uprising as the work of foreign conspirators.”
Besides, “what would be the nature of the intervention? A no fly zone? There is nothing flying anyway,” said Goksel. “Troops into Syria would be war. I don’t think anyone will do that now.”
Turkey could be the exception, the EIU’s Phillips said. “If Turkey felt there was a civil war on its doorstep, it might be willing to deploy its military to encourage a swift resolution to any conflict.”
Activists are increasingly calling for international observers. The Syrian Revolution General Commission has asked the UN Security Council to “take all necessary measures to protect the civilian population under threat of attack including the installation, as a matter of urgency, of a UN monitoring mission.”
The number of people participating in the uprising is rather exaggerated
The West has instead opted for more sanctions, which according to Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the top UN official in Syria, are contributing to an already poor economic situation in the country.
So far, sanctions have not had much impact on the government’s actions. But if the economic situation keeps deteriorating, and better-off communities in Damascus and Aleppo feel they are affected, they could start supporting the uprising. “And then it’s a totally new game after that,” Goksel said.
Phillips agreed: “The economy is what can crack the regime,” he said, suggesting that an internal coup – backed by a business community that may eventually see al-Assad as an obstruction to a return to normality – is one of the possible scenarios. The UN says that despite “pockets of need”, there is no country-wide humanitarian crisis in Syria. However, the conflict has displaced tens of thousands of people, affected livelihoods, and reduced access to health care. Ould Cheikh Ahmed said he was concerned that the humanitarian situation would worsen as the conflict continued.
Analysts say the risk of civil war is increasing. “The people are struggling to keep the peacefulness of their revolution,” Mousab Azzawi, a Syrian human rights activist with the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told IRIN.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed warned, in an interview with IRIN, that civil war was now a real possibility.
Fears that religious extremists could take over in the event of al-Assad’s fall are likely overblown, according to Haseeb. “The Muslim Brotherhood, at the present moment, is very weak inside Syria.” But the movement is part of the political landscape in Syria and will likely have some role in any new government.
Spillover in Lebanon
Within Lebanon, there are political parties and armed groups with affiliations to Syria, many of whom are not accountable to any central leadership that can control them.
The UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, urged Lebanese factions earlier this month not to let events in Syria affect Lebanon. But some on the other side of the border are already preparing for civil war, unsure of how various parties will react to the unfolding events in Syria.
Lebanese Salafists, angry over the crackdown against fellow Sunnis in Lebanon, could attack Syrian interests in Lebanon, for example, in support of their brethren.
Weakened by the loss of its ally, al-Assad, Hezbollah could start a civil war or another war with Israel, “as a diversionary move to legitimize itself and to protect its own weapons”, Thanassi Cambanis, author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War against Israel, told the BBC.
But the days of small border skirmishes are long over, Goksel said. Hezbollah is well-aware that a war with Israel would be very destructive, and that it would be the “biggest loser”.
More likely, Goksel said, Lebanon will stay quiet, and the Syrian uprising could eventually fizzle out, overwhelmed by the raw power of the regime.