Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Syrian Opposition/Russia and Syria

YOU ARE IN: Home Page > Topics > Russia

Update from AIJAC

February 3, 2012
Number 02/12 #02

Today's Update focuses on the situation in Syria and especially on what is known about the varied opposition to the Assad regime. 

The first piece up comes from Nic Robertson of CNN, who just returned from a visit to Syria which is something increasingly rare for Western journalists. He notes an increasing sectarian polarisation occurring within Syria and sees the regime as successfully exploiting it, while the opposition is not doing enough to calm the fears of the Alawite and Christian minorities. He also sees signs of utter desperation in many parts of the country, and the opposition consolidating its hold of places like Homs. For all his observations from Syria, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Andrew Spath, a scholar associated with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, has assembled a useful discussion of myths and facts about the Syrian opposition. He particularly stresses that there is no single, unified and recognised opposition, and examines some of the disparities that exist both tactically, and between secularist, Islamist and sectarian groups. He also discusses the sectarian problem at length, and appears more optimistic than Robertson that the opposition is effectively tackling the fears of ethnic minorities and the regime's efforts to present itself as the only barrier standing in the way of the an ethnic bloodbath. For this important look at the ins and outs of the Syrian anti-Assad forces, CLICK HERE. Also, Washington Institute scholar Andrew Tabler discusses what is known about the opposition Free Syria Army, made up of Syrian army defectors, and the dilemmas it presents for Western policy makers.

Finally, noted Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami comments on the extensive support that Russia is providing to the Assad regime, especially at the UN. Ajami notes that Moscow's policy is not driven by oil politics but instead largely by echoes of old style Cold War politics and a sense that Russian bases on the Syrian coast are the last vestiges of the Soviet empire. Ajami goes on to argue that Putin has a political philosophy which can best be described as "order secured by a strongman", and that Assad's claims, along with his conspiracy theories about foreign influences fanning the unrest, resonate with the Russian leader. For this useful analysis of why Russia remains so firmly in Assad's camp, CLICK HERE. The New York Times also had an editorial on Russia's destructive role in blocking a UN Security Council resolution on Syria.

Readers may also be interested in:

 


The day after Assad

Op-ed: CNN correspondent Nic Robertson offers a rare look inside turbulent Syria

Nic Robertson

Ynet.com,  02.02.12, 00:17

It wasn't until I left Syria that I found the voice I'd been looking for. I was only hours out of the capital, and it came by surprise, a chance meeting at an airport on my way back to London.
 
He was a Syrian Christian, a member of one of the country's larger minorities. They make up about 10% of the population. Many are businessmen; many have benefited from President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

His message was clear: We want change, but we don't want uncertainty. "The opposition needs to reach out to us, tell us their vision of Syria." Then, he said, they'd have 60% to 70% support: "Everyone in the middle ground, enough to overthrow the president."

He was speaking out because he could, with no need to fear that al-Assad's secret police would come knocking on his door. In Damascus and the rest of Syria, it had been different. None of the intellectuals, the businessmen, the others "in the middle" wanting al-Assad's corrupt regime replaced dared raise the conversation beyond the mildest hint at change of some sort; "but not, of course, the president" is required.
 
Just one day of covering pro- and anti-government rallies convinced me of how polarized the country has become. People are metaphorically retreating to their confessional bunkers.
 
Al-Assad's rallying cry is that only he can protect the country's minorities: Christians like the man I met at the airport, Alawite like himself, about 15% of the population. He keeps the ethnic Kurds, a little less than 10%, on his side by courting their biggest tribes.

It's a tactic that's working. The Kurds don't back him, but they haven't turned against him as they did against his father. The Alawites who make up most of the officer corps in the army are still loyal, as are the Christians. But not without reservation.
 
A source close to the Saudi ruling circle told me Alawite generals threaten to abandon al-Assad if he makes them turn their guns on civilians in the streets of Damascus.
 
Several Westerners with detailed knowledge of the country expressed their frustration with the opposition, too. Why don't they reassure the minorities they won't face retribution once al-Assad is gone? They ask.

One opposition figure had threatened to wipe the Alawites off the map; another group said they would try al-Assad's top 100 generals for war crimes. So far, according to these Westerners, leading opposition groups have not distanced themselves from the calls that serve only to reinforce al-Assad's claims.

Blood spilled on both sides 

Al-Assad's track record charts a far different course. He and his father before him have assiduously sold their secular brand of socialism as the panacea for internal conflict. The truth is different, according to the Westerners: Al-Assad has been fermenting sectarian tensions. It is a lie that he is the defender of the minorities, they say.
 
It's hard to escape the feeling in Damascus that the moment to reach out is being lost. But it's easy to see why.
 
Al-Assad is utterly committed to a security crackdown, and the opposition is getting armed and fighting back. Blood is being spilled on both sides; more families are being affected and attitudes hardened.

It's rapidly getting to the point where even if opposition leaders did want to reach out to the man or woman in the middle or an army general or two, the base supporters will have no stomach for compromise.
 
At anti-government rallies, time and again, we saw anger and frustration boiling over, people literally screaming in our faces for fear we didn't get the desperation of their plight. Al-Assad's strong-arm tactics denying free speech have ensured that the street voice for reform has metastasized into something far more malevolent.

In places like Homs, the cradle of the uprising, the writing is on the wall for the rest of the country. Some neighborhoods have thrown out the government completely, such as in the Baba Amr district, where the Free Syrian Army has control. Communities have divided on sectarian lines. Many Christians have fled to Damascus.

Garbage is piled high in the streets, electricity is cut, civilian causalities mount, and on the other side of the impromptu front-line barricades, the death toll of government soldiers creeps up as well.

A drive around Homs reveals a medieval-style siege, multiple checkpoints to move between neighborhoods, even a deep new ditch in places rings the city. But the uprising continues.

The opposition in Homs is better organized. A new council has been formed, it has a budget - money, some say, is coming from the Gulf - and runs medical and humanitarian supplies.

But the council is not the only show in town. Salafists are moving in too, Islamic radicals, many with terror tactics honed in neighboring Iraq. Reports abound of infighting both inside and outside Syria, the hard-liners already jockeying for post-al-Assad power.

If war escalates, as it surely seems it will, expect a long and bloody campaign. As the man in the middle I met on my way back to London told me: "We are afraid of the men with guns, afraid the radicals will impose their backwards views on us."

CNN's Nic Robertson and crew recently returned from a rare look inside Syria, where the government has been placing restrictions on international journalists and refusing many of them entry at all. While there, Robertson followed Arab League monitors already in the country and talked to the residents.

Back to Top
------------------------------------------------------------------------

OPPOSITION GROUPS IN SYRIA: MYTHS AND REALITIES

By Andrew Spath

Foreign Policy Research Institute
MIDDLE EAST MEDIA MONITOR, January 2012

Revolutionary periods have a way of compressing history. Events unfold so quickly, and the flow of information is so dense, that our ability to comprehend them is diminished. This condition pervades the present political situation in Syria, fostering numerous popular fictions that contribute to miscalculating strategies of action. Two related popular fictions stand out in assessing the prospects of prolonged civil conflict or outright civil war. The first fiction insinuates a clear bifurcation between regime supporters and regime opponents. The second fiction, related to the first, suggests that sectarian divisions define clear lines of support and opposition to the Ba‘ath regime.

Fears abound among analysts and onlookers, including the Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi, that Syria is moving closer to a civil war that would include drastic consequences for its neighbors. [1] The protocol between the Arab League and the Syrian government to send observers to Syria[2] has thus far failed to stem the violent repression of on-the-ground activists. Opposition groups in and out of Syria[3] and some of the Arab League observers themselves[4] have little faith in the mission as currently constituted. Amid intense debate in and out of Syria over the internationalization of the crisis and outside intervention, there is consensus among opposition groups on the desire for a change in governance. However, there is little programmatic unity over how to change it and what will follow it.

Much of the commentary on the situation in Syria – as was the case in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and elsewhere – pits the government and its supporters against “the opposition.” United in the desire to see traditional Ba‘ath Party dictatorship give way to some form of pluralism in “the Syria of tomorrow,” [5] opposition groups otherwise diverge on crucial issues pertaining to both the short-term strategies of resistance and long-term political and ideological commitments. [6] Identifying and discussing “the opposition” in monolithic terms reifies the notion that there is a single voice to which opposition positions and statements can be attributed, [7] ignoring clear and consequential differences among its diffuse parts.

The Arab League and international community have made clear the importance of a cohesive opposition with diverse representation. In a meeting with representatives of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most visible coalition of opposition groups outside the country, Hillary Clinton stated directly that “the future and legitimacy of the opposition depends on its… ability to organize and unify its ranks,” prompting efforts to work toward consolidation. [8] Yet the ability to coalesce around shared interest in ending autocratic rule in Syria remains elusive.

The challenge is most apparent among the two most prominent and internally diverse umbrella organizations – the SNC and the National Coordinating Body (NCB). While disagreements within the SNC have been apparent since its genesis, [9] in-fighting flared recently over a draft agreement between the two organizations, signed by SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun and NCB representative Haytham al-Manna, that was summarily rejected by the SNC executive council. [10] The most contentious points of disagreement are support of foreign intervention, dialogue with Assad’s government, and relations with the Free Syrian Army. [11] Fissures within the opposition in general, and within the SNC itself, are exacerbated by a lack of coordination and clarity in public statements. Contradictions between personal views of the Council’s members and its stated positions on international intervention plagued the effort to bring together the SNC and NCB in December. [12]

The divisions among regime challengers do not end there. There are, of course, significant differences between secularists and Islamists. [13] But even among the Islamists, as seen recently in Egypt, different views persist about the direction of the revolution and visions of a post-Assad Syria. Only recently have leading Muslim scholars from various Islamic trends come together in search of a formula to unite in support of the revolution. [14] Moreover, growing feelings of frustration toward the larger opposition organizations persist among many protesters on the ground. With a growing power vacuum on the ground, divisions are sharpening between the activists on the ground and the opposition in exile. [15] Bearing the immediate threats of the government’s violent tactics to suppress the uprising, it is not surprising that some protesters feel the dissident parties in exile are “in one valley and the [domestic] revolutionaries in another valley.” [16]

The oversimplification of a singular “opposition” suggests that there is a coherent and coordinated government waiting in the wings that will facilitate a smooth transition upon Assad’s downfall. The model reflects the Libyan experience of creating an internationally recognized transitional council as the legitimate representative of the opposition, a designation sought by the SNC since October and one that may facilitate international intervention. [17] While the Libyan opposition became decidedly militarized, the Syrian National Council is treading a fine line between advocating military intervention and its commitment to “safeguarding the non-violent character of the Syrian revolution” that bolsters its domestic and international legitimacy. [18] Recently, the SNC began direct coordination with the Free Syrian Army, though the body has been careful to convey that the FSA is not its “armed wing.” [19] Unlike the Libyan Transitional Council, however, the Syrian National Council has yet to gain international recognition as the sole representative of the Syrian people partly because of the challenges to coordinate and unite the various opposition factions.

Identifying these lines of difference within the Syrian opposition is not to suggest that integrating these disparate groups is unlikely or imprudent. It instead requires that observers confront realistically the complexities of unifying a wide array of political organizations, warns against actions that may exacerbate divisions, and questions the relevance of the Libyan model in the Syrian context.

The challenges of coordination and unification generate a justified fear of extended civil war and increased sectarian violence. But contrary to some analysis, the distinction between Syrians who support the government and those who oppose it does not follow a strict dichotomy between the Sunni majority and Syria’s minority communities. Nor does it follow a dichotomy between Alawi (the minority Shi’a sect of the Assads that dominates the government’s security apparatus) and non-Alawi Syrians. Prominent Alawi member of the SNC Munther Majos emphasizes that many in the Alawi community have been “vulnerable to the injustice of the Syrian regime,” especially in the last two decades as the regime has become more personalized and family-centered. [20]

Across the board, opposition organizations have worked to dispel the fears of minorities and challenge the framing of the crisis in sectarian terms. [21] They have charged the government with provoking sectarian conflict and have made it a point to highlight the significant involvement of Alawis, Druze, Kurds, and Christians in their ranks and on the street, particularly in highly heterogeneous cities like Tartous and Banias. [22] Since the beginning of the revolution, concerted displays explicitly against sectarian discord demonstrate the alternative narrative of national and confessional tolerance and the shared plight of life under autocracy. [23] Protest chants, official stances of opposition groups, and online Facebook pages[24] explicitly reject the politicization of Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious identities. Prominent Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called on the Druze forces in the Syrian military not to participate in the suppression of the opposition. [25] Prominent Christians like Michael Kilo and Fayez Sara are notable members of the opposition, and some Christian leaders have recently stated that they “stand with the demands of the Syrian people.” [26]

At the same time, should a power vacuum, military intervention, or other sources of violence escalation add to fears of anarchy and chaos – an image Bashar al-Assad refers to frequently[27] – a convergence of people into their respective ethno-confessional social groups is very possible. Recent months have not been absent of explicitly sectarian attacks and rhetoric, particularly in areas of Homs. [28]

A nuanced view of the situation displays that sectarianism is “not merely a scarecrow wielded by despots to resist change… but is also not an undying and eternal fact.” [29] Across the board, opposition groups have maintained strong nationalist and anti-sectarian language in their founding documents and public statements. Comparisons with Syria’s neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon, and the vast sectarian violence that were part of civil wars in each country, provide little leverage for anticipating what will unfold in Syria. Iraq’s sectarian crisis was exacerbated by foreign military intervention, and Lebanon’s ethno-confessional composition is more balanced than the Sunni-majority Syrian society. Despite representation of the various minority communities in both the active support and active opposition to the government, many Syrian minorities are taking a more passive “wait and see” approach to the crisis. The challenge is that the longer people wait and the more they see, the more likely it is that fears of violence will increase and sectarian divisions will harden. Simply, sectarian violence is an open question rather than a foregone conclusion.

The declared anti-sectarian nature of the revolutionaries across organizations provide a better model for post-Assad governance than the prospect of smaller insurgent groups that may seek to exploit sectarian identities for political or material purposes. A turn to violent opposition of any kind plays directly into the hands of the government as it attempts to divide, and thereby weaken, the opposition by exploiting fears of “leaping into the unknown.” [30]

More careful assessments of the situation in Syria will consider the complexities of both opposition politics and dynamics of sectarianism. Questions remain as to whether the leading opposition organizations can allay sectarian anxieties. Their best chances of doing so are through further inclusion of the many segments of Syrian society, sustained inclusive rhetoric, and coordination among the opposition bodies in the absence of unification.

 

Andrew Spath is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University’s Department of Political Science, where he studies on comparative politics and international affairs. His research interests focus on Arab states of the Middle East, specifically dealing with leadership succession, political mobilization, regime transformations, and the rule of law.

 

Notes

  1. [Text] http://www.addustour.com/ViewTopic.aspx?ac=%5CArabicAndInter%5C2012%5C01%5CArabicAndInter_issue1549_day14_id383971.htm#.TxdPjG-m9V4
  2. [Text] Story here: http://aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12075&article=655173&feature=
    Full text of the protocol here: http://tinyurl.com/762cvga
  3. [Text] http://aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12104&article=659484&feature=
    http://tinyurl.com/7q54mc8
  4. [Text] http://www.daralhayat.com/portalarticlendah/349578
    http://ara.reuters.com/article/topNews/idARACAE80B0JA20120112
  5. [Text] http://www.alkhaleej.ae/portal/b237989b-6043-48b7-ad33-102cd2923e08.aspx
  6. [Text] For a brief look at some of the competing factions, see http://www.majalla.com/arb/2012/01/article55230617 and http://international.daralhayat.com/internationalarticle/346998. A more comprehensive list of Syrian political parties is here: http://www.syrianparties.info/
  7. [Text] http://www.alqabas.com.kw/Article.aspx?id=762542&date=11012012
  8. [Text] http://www.assafir.com/Article.aspx?EditionId=2033&articleId=2379&ChannelId=48248&Author=%D9%85%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%AF+%D8%A8%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B7
  9. [Text] http://www.elaph.com/Web/news/2011/10/691388.html
  10. [Text] http://tinyurl.com/83pm8wz
  11. [Text] http://aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12091&article=657538&feature=
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=oUqvaJ2Zilk#%21
  12. [Text] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=gOfmJonblCs&fb_source=message
  13. [Text] http://international.daralhayat.com/internationalarticle/349476
    http://tinyurl.com/7nefhv9
  14. [Text] http://international.daralhayat.com/internationalarticle/351519
  15. [Text] http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/E260A9C3-76F8-4E93-8692-3C100DD4221E.htm?GoogleStatID=9
  16. [Text] http://www.elaph.com/Web/news/2012/1/706398.html?entry=newsmostvisitedtoday
  17. [Text] http://www.almasryalyoum.com/node/503810
  18. [Text] http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/10/02/169799.html
  19. [Text] http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12100&article=658879&feature=
  20. [Text] http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/12/10/181868.html
  21. [Text] http://www.lccsyria.org/751
    http://syria.alsafahat.net/?p=14266
    http://aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12098&article=658615&feature=
    http://tinyurl.com/7n2t8no
  22. [Text] http://www.alqabas.com.kw/Article.aspx?id=762542&date=11012012
    http://tinyurl.com/7s76e4z
    http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12100&article=658901&feature=
  23. [Text] http://www.middle-east-online.com/?id=124165
  24. [Text] http://tinyurl.com/7h23t8z
  25. [Text] http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/01/03/186156.html
  26. [Text] http://aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12094&article=657923&feature=
  27. [Text] http://www.sana.sy/ara/2/2011/06/22/pr-353679.htm
    http://tinyurl.com/84ybxsx
  28. [Text] http://international.daralhayat.com/internationalarticle/352210
  29. [Text] For analyses presenting and refuting such binaries in the case of Syria, see: http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/EXERES/F766F8E0-EFE8-4F0A-8853-C478175395FB.htm; and http://www.al-akhbar.com/node/21322; and http://syria.alsafahat.net/?p=15256
  30. [Text] http://www.sana.sy/ara/2/2011/06/22/pr-353679.htm

Back to Top
------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Last Battle of the Cold War

Vladimir Putin stands by fellow strongman Bashar Assad in Syria, lest Russians get any uppity ideas about democracy.

By FOUAD AJAMI

Wall Street Journal, JANUARY 31, 2012

Afghanistan was once thought of as the last battle of the Cold War. But that designation must be accorded the ongoing struggle in Syria.

The late dictator Hafez Assad built his tyrannical regime in the image of the late Soviet Union. He usurped power in his own country four decades ago, when the power of the USSR was on the rise. His armies and factories were in the Soviet mold, as were his feared intelligence services. The Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination Hafez Assad forced on the hapless Lebanese in 1991 was vintage Warsaw Pact.

History hasn't altered much: Now Hafez's son, Bashar, in a big battle to defend his father's bequest, has Vladimir Putin's Russian autocracy by his side. The Soviet empire has fallen, but there, by the Mediterranean coast, a Syrian tyranny gives Russia the old sense that it still is a great power.

Time and again at the United Nations, Moscow has declared the sovereignty of the Assad regime a "red line"—and stated that it would veto any resolution in the Security Council that would put it in jeopardy. True, Beijing also has gone along for the ride, so fervent a believer is China in the unfettered claims of national sovereignty—the rulers there forever thinking of their hold on Tibet. But China has paltry interests in Damascus, and the Arab oil states have of late set out to win Beijing over to the cause of regime change in Syria with guarantees of oil supplies and inducements in the energy sector.

No such luck with the Russian Federation—Russia has huge reserves of oil and gas in its own right.

Mr. Putin is invested in Syria, as well as in other dictators in the region. There are philosophical and ideological stakes at work here. Mr. Putin has ridden the windfall of oil and gas revenues for a good decade, buying off the middle classes, tranquilizing his country, and justifying his authoritarianism at home as the price of restoration of grandeur and power abroad. But the middle classes have turned against him. And former supporters have grown weary of his Mafia state, with its rampant criminality and cronyism. And so when Russians took to the streets to protest the rigged elections to the Duma of Dec. 4, Mr. Putin's response to the fury was identical to that of the Arab rulers when faced with the protesters of the Arab Spring.

There was something familiar and repetitive about Mr. Putin's paranoia—his dark view of the world, the insistence that the Russian protests had been instigated by foreign conspirators. The campaign of vilification waged against U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul—the charge that he had been dispatched to Russia to subvert its political system—bore a striking resemblance to the Syrian charge that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford had fed the flames of the Syrian rebellion.

The sun has set on the Soviet empire, but Mr. Putin stands guard, with a "philosophy" of his own—order secured by a strongman. Russia stood idly by as tyrants such as Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarrak fell. But in the Libyan case it stepped out of the way at the U.N. Security Council, and its abstention gave the Western democracies the space and a warrant to unseat Moammar Gadhafi. Syria gives Russia a chance to correct for the error it made.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been emphatic that there can be no repeat of Libya. By his lights, the green light given to protect Libyan civilians had turned into a warrant for regime change.

Democracies are on a rampage, so the Russian custodians of power insist, and a line has to be drawn in defense of an autocratic cabal of nations. Russian history alternates long periods of quiescence with sudden rebellions. The Putin autocracy was taking no chances.

Syria feeds another Russian obsession: Islam. If the Chinese see Tibet everywhere, the Russians are fixated on Chechnya. In the Syrian inferno, the Russians see a secular tyranny at war with radical Islamists, and thus see in Syria a reflection of themselves.

The rulers in Damascus have insisted that their regime is battling religious terrorists destined to shatter the peace of the minorities—the Alawis, the Christians, the Druze, the Ismailis. The Obama administration had once subscribed to that view but has come to abandon it, as have the Europeans. Russia remains a holdout, secure in the belief that it has a special insight into that impasse between regimes in the saddle and radical Islamists.

Old military considerations also endure. Syria offers Russia a Mediterranean naval base at Tartus, a city in the territory of the ruling Alawis at that. The base is derelict, but it is better than nothing, an asset to bring into the standoff with the United States. It is a shabby play at empire, but the Russians drew solace as their lone aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, steamed into the port from the Arctic last month.

The powers that be in NATO—neighboring Turkey included—have not been terribly coherent in dealing with this Syrian crisis. They show little taste for a military offensive that would topple the Syrian dictatorship.

An American president proud to have ended an engagement in Iraq is not itching for a war of his own in Araby. The United Nations offers no way out, and Russia is not the only obstacle.

Those "emerging" powers—India, Brazil, South Africa—have shown moral obtuseness of their own and have sided with the brutal regime in Damascus. The prayers in Homs for deliverance at the hands of outsiders—a Libya redux—may, in the manner of desperate prayers, be answered. More likely, the contest will be decided on the ground. Both the regime and the oppositionists who have paid so dearly in this cruel struggle are betting that time is on their side.

Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and co-chair of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and International Order.

Back to Top

Most recent items in: Russia