Some framework to Syrian crisis

From June 10 the Syrian army began a siege on Jisr-al Shughour, NW Syria; local residents expected a massacre, proportional to the Hama massacre and in one week nearly 10.000 Syrians have escaped to Turkey. International media and public diplomacy is giving its high-flown statements about humanitarian crisis, some states may even demand to activate R2P principles – again. These are normal cover ups to hide de facto inactivity of international community. United Nations Security Council is facing immense international pressure to condemn Syria how it is copying protests at home.

Humanitarian aspect is however a minor point for international community, the key question is how events in Syria will affect on regional stability, what will be the outcome related to Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel as Syria is a key player in this context. Any destabilization of Syria in the fall of al-Assad will change the geopolitical map of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Some background

Last year, the United Nations Development Program released its Human Development Report for Arab states with the assistance of Arab scholars and researchers. The report stated that the Arab world is lacking in all areas of human development, such as freedom, empowerment of women and education. In addition, nearly 50 percent of the Arab world lives below the international poverty line. For the Arab world to merely maintain its current position, which is at the lowest rung on the development ladder, it will need to create 51 million jobs in the next 10 years. This socio-economic situation might be a common background for Arab Spring.

Syria has similar problems than the rest of Arab world. Several of the modern states of the Middle East were built on a mosaic of ancient religions, sects, and ethnic groups held uneasily and sometimes uncomfortably together by central government. Syria is a multi-cultural, multi-religious, secular and relatively tolerant country with a predominantly Muslim population (90%) and multi-racial background (Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen).

In Syria, the Baath Party has been in power since 1963. A state of emergency, which was imposed at that time remains in force. The president’s sources of power are the army and the security forces, which maintain a grip on the country. The Syrian police and security services are dreadfully effective and efficient, and that is why Syria has mostly been a stable and happy place to live for the past 50 years – the place to which Iraqi Christian and Muslim refugees have fled for safety.

When the wave of protests on the Arab Street started there was some demonstrations in Syria too. However, the Syrian regime managed to suppress the protest e.g. giving economic benefits, establishing a social relief fund with nearly 12 billion Syrian liras annual budget, increasing subsidies for state workers, creating a university graduate employment program and reducing some taxes. Same time the regime implemented firm suppression of all attempts of demonstrations as it has done years by attacking and squelching all opposition forces. The regime also tightened its control of the media and deployed more people to security forces. Opponents to Assad were using social media to prepare for a mass rallies using proxy servers to get around government restrictions on Facebook. Using of internet cafés is possible but users must register their names and police have the authority to confiscate the lists.

The Syrian government and non-government press openly supported the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, and did not hide its satisfaction over the ousting of presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali. The Syrian Democratic League called for a general strike and for civil disobedience against the authorities. There is big differences between Syrian revolt and the other Arab Spring events. In Syria the Dera’a street protests started with Sunni Muslims demanding that girls attending school should wear veils. The government refused, since veils are not compulsory under secular Syrian law. When the protests grew, the government gave in: girls in Dera’a are now forced to wear the veil.

During ongoing information war it might be wise some times to check also Syrian official position on issues. Real-time view of Syria’s regime can be checked from The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA)

Real-time opposition view can be found e.g. from Facebook group “Syrian Upraising 2011 Information Centre”

Fragmented Opposition

The unions are strictly under the control of the state and, unlike Egypt, there has been no strike movement in Syria for decades. There are definitely people who want al-Assad and his regime to go: radical Saudi Wahhabites, Iranian Shia extremists; and the Muslim Brotherhood. Also the peasantry, the public sector working class, and the small and medium petite bourgeoisie in the towns and cities have been harshly hit by the so-called liberalization of the economy and are the ones on the streets.

Many Sunni Muslims in Syria and throughout the region feel that Assad’s Syria has unduly favoured the Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam, who constitute some 12 percent of the population but control a vastly greater percentage of the country’s wealth.

Al Jazeera provided analysis of the largest opposition parties in Syria that might have great political influence in any change of power: Syrian People’s Democratic Party, Muslim Brotherhood, National Salvation Front, Movement for Justice and Development, Reform Party, Arab Socialist Movement, Arab Socialist Union, Workers Revolutionary Party and Communist Party of Labour. There is almost no national wide organization inside Syria among the protesters, however at local level some cooperation has took place. In the Governorate of Darr’a there has been signs of the organized working class beginning to move, with the trade unions severing all their links with the Ba’ath party.

There is not so much reliable information from the field but it seems that e.g. in Darr’a the intelligence forces were giving orders to the army units but at a certain point some officers refused to carry out the orders and turned their guns on the intelligence officers. Also in Facebook has been separate reports of a mutiny within the Syrian army but how widespread this has been is questionable.

 

Al-Assad has also supporters

Protests get head lines but speaking about revolt is overestimation; there should be at least ten times more people on the streets that one could call real uprising. The Assad’s regime has also its supporters as well those who keep neutral position to demonstrations. So far is the affluent middle class living in Syria’s biggest towns, Damascus and Aleppo, stood aside from the uprising. The Druze community which obeyed its leaders to stay out of it on orders coming from the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Syria’s Christians who are the backbone of the country’s business community actively supported the Syrian ruler. More than 100 Iranian and Hizballah officers placed their active experience in crushing opponents at Assad’s disposal. They brought with them a whole range of manpower and equipment for breaking up demonstrations against which the popular demonstrators were helpless.


The nascent bourgeoisie and the upper layers of the petite bourgeoisie (especially the merchants) have been accumulating immense wealth in the recent years at the expense of the masses and thus are coming out fiercely against the movement.

On religious side Syria has a variety of minorities such as the Protestants, the Chaldeans, the Armenians, the Roman Catholics, the Maronite Catholics, the Greek Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox etc. Indeed Syria has been a safe haven to many minorities surpressed elsewhere. So one can estimate that these religious groups are more afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood or any radical or fanatic group leading the country towards theocracy, better them to keep the current Syrian regime in place.

Outside factors

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice has stated that there is evidence of active Iranian support for the Syrian government’s crackdown on demonstrators. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are being accused of suppressing the Syrian protesters at the orders of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran has denied any involvement in suppressing the protests. On the other hand, in mid-April, WikiLeaks revealed that the US has secretly been funding Syrian opposition groups with millions of dollars.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is also using foreign cards to divert attention from country’s unrest by creating drama on Syrian-Israeli border. On June 5th he allowed Palestinian demonstrators attack in Golan Heights over the border to Israel. For Nakba Day or 3rd Intifada events a nice story was created how Palestinian “refugees” are attempting to return to their “former homes”; however a Syrian opposition group published details of Syrian government payments to those involved in the border riots and infiltrations. Indeed according DEBKAfile Assad’s security machine even paid $1,000 for every demonstrator who cut a piece of razor wire from the Israeli border fence and $10,000 for the families of volunteers shot by Israeli troops before they reached their goal.

The Palestinians in the refugee camps in Syria have been one of the President’s most loyal populations. However after Nakba Day al-Assad can not any more count on them. There was some causalities among Palestinians who tried march over the border and when the young killed ones were returned to the Yarmuk refugee camp, the camp erupted in riots, the anger of which, “was not directed against Israel, but against those who dispatched these young Palestinians to the Israeli border”.

Turkish military intervention?

“If the crisis is spreading to the city of Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, which are unique in terms of demographic mix of Islamic and Christian in Kurdish, as they may affect any security imbalance in Turkey directly.” (journalist in Al-Akhbar Ernest Khoury)

Turkey is deeply concerned by the Syrian disturbances and not only due humanitarian crisis on the border. Few years ago Turkey had warm relationship and various cooperation with Israel but Gaza flotilla changed the situation. Since then Turkey-Syria relations became deeper. One idea has been the creation of an economic bloc comprising Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, visa requirements are practically removed, cooperation with investments and technology know-how are rising. With Syria, this brought impressive results. Trade between Turkey and Syria reached last year $2,270bn. Cities close to the border like Gaziantep and Aleppo have enjoyed racing economic growth, thanks to this trade and an influx of Syrian and Turkish visitors taking advantage of visa-free travel.

Now there is rumours that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has secretly ordered his government officials to dump Ankara’s ties with Damascus with all speed; the fact is that he allowed Syrian opposition leaders to meet in Antalya on May 31-June 2 on ways to topple Bashar Assad. The turn is even more drastic as, according Debkafile at least, Turkish PM Erdogan on June 10, decided to move his army into northern Syria border and his government is considering defining its mission as the protection of civilian lives against a barbaric ruler citing the UN Security Council resolution on Libya. There is also plans that refugee camps will also go up on the Syrian side of the border to stem the flow into Turkey and rumours even limited Turkish military intervention in Syria and the establishment of a buffer zone.

The Turkey-Syria common border amounts more than eight hundred kilometers. Ankara has accepted nearly 10.000 refugees from Jisr al-Shughour and it is not prepared to take on tens or possible hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing from larger towns like Idlib, Maarat al-Numaana and the Kurdish regions abutting the Turkish border. Meanwhile President Assad has offered Syrian Kurds autonomy, and he invited Kurdish leaders for a meeting in Damascus right after the opposition meeting in Antalya.

Turkey is estimating that humanitarian crisis on the border can worse soon. One sign of this is that the Turkish organization IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) is considering the cancellation of the Gaza flotilla due to the tensions along the Syrian-Turkish border. 22 different ships are ready to rendezvous in international waters south of Cyprus, and sail to Gaza. (Source: Haarez )

International inactivity

United Nations Security Council is struggling with its Syria resolution, this like previous EU statements are anyway empty symbolic acts of condemnation and will not prevent Assad to crack down the unrest. One of the obstacles with UNSC Syria resolution is the experience got from ongoing Libya operation. Eric Walton (Green International Affairs Critic/Canada)hits the nail on head as saying that “The intent of the R2P resolution around Libya was to protect civilians in imminent danger, and not escalate the conflict into a regime-change-by-bombing-into-submission exercise. This creates a bad precedent that will undermine the appropriate application of R2P by the UN Security Council in other crisis situations.” (Source: Green Party of Canada )

The problem in Syria is similar than in Libya. Related to ongoing operation it is estimated that the NATO attacks had not disabled a single one of Qaddafi’s five brigades. This could be true also in Syria with similar intervention. Also thinking situation after intervention the problem in Syria could be the same as in Libya. It looks like there is no one in the Libyan rebel political or military leadership capable of taking over the reins of power in Tripoli and it is therefore assumed that a member of the Qaddafi clan will be chosen as Libya’s interim ruler.

According unconfirmed reports President Barak Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev Friday, May 27, came to an reciprocal understanding on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Deauville about the fate of the Syrian and Libyan rulers. Obama is reported to have promised Medvedev to let Assad finish off the uprising against him without too much pressure from the US and the West. In return, the Russian president undertook to help the US draw the Libyan war to a close by means of an effort to bring about Muammar Qaddafi’s exit from power – in a word, the two big powers traded Qaddafi for Assad.

Energy aspect

Speaking about events and their effects on Arab Street, the energy aspect can not be ignored. Syria is in the middle of two important energy corridors: It links Turkey and the Caspian See to Israel and the Red Sea and it links Iraq to the Mediterranean. The Eastern Mediterranean gas fields have been the subject of negotiations between the E.U., Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Aside from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline, the existence of the Levantine natural gas fields is also the reason why the Kremlin has created a military foothold in Syria for the Russian Federation. This has been done by upgrading Soviet-era naval facilities in Syria. Moreover, it has been Iran that has agreed to explore and help develop these natural gas fields off the Levantine coast for Beirut and Damascus.

There is also new huge energy sources in Eastern Mediterranean – first Leviathan and Tamar fields some 90 kilometres west of Haifa/Israel with estimated 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 4.3 billion barrels of oil and second a bid north from Leviathan/Tamar fields Syria is seeking foreign investment for three offshore oil and gas concessions. If the present regime in Syria falls the question is who would control these energy routes. If western powers are taking more firm grip from Syria it would also mean that the large natural gas fields off the Lebanese and Syrian coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean would be out of reach for China and instead go to the E.U., Israel, and Washington.


Besides gas and oil also use of nuclear energy is actual in Syria as it is also in Iran. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has decided to refer Syria to the U.N. Security Council after the country failed to declare its covert nuclear reactor, which was discovered and destroyed by Israel four years ago.”Syria’s apparent attempt at constructing a covert, undeclared plutonium production reactor, a reactor with no credible peaceful purpose, represents one of the most serious safeguards violations possible,” said U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies. (Source: Arcamax

Bottom line

If the Syrian army’s middle and lower ranks, drawn mainly from the country’s Sunni majority, which comprises some 75% of the population, begin to turn against the senior ranks where the Alawite minority (10%, including the Assad family) predominates, the regime could begin to fall apart. So the core question is whether the security forces, on which the regime was founded when al-Assad’s father took over in 1970, will stay loyal.

So far the upraising has been weak and took place rural areas or smaller towns. If the unrest will spread to Damascus and Aleppo and if revolt gets more popular support the change of regime can be a reality; whether the outcome afterwards will be a civil war remains to seen.

If the Syrian regime were to be severely weakened by popular dissent, Iran’s influence in Arab affairs would almost certainly be reduced – in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Open conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria would profoundly disturb the whole region.

What is really happening in Syria is unclear and lot of disinformation is spreading. There might also be some biased campaign launched by some international mass media against Syria. The positive aspect could be that Nato’s “mission creep” in Libya undermines R2P in Syria and so may prevent international community to make new mistakes soon.

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Some of my other Middle East articles:

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5 Responses to Some framework to Syrian crisis

  1. [...] Syyrian kriisin pitkittyessä on YK:ta jälleen kaivattu apuun R2P periaatteen pohjalta. Libyassa meneillään olevan vastaavan operaation kokemusten myötä Nato on haluton tällaista uutta interventiota toteuttamaan. Haluttomuus voi olla hyväkin ratkaisu toisaalta informaation itse olosuhteista ollessa vajaata ja ristiriitaista ja toisaalta epävarmuudesta sen suhteen paranisivatko vai huononesivatko olot Syyriassa al-Assadin syrjäyttämisen jälkeen. Syyria on keskeisessä roolissa myös alueellisesti lähi-idässä eikä energiapoliittisia tekijöitäkään voi väheksyä. Näitä asioita sekäSyyrian tilanteen sisäisiä ja ulkoisia tekijöitä käsittelen laajemmin pääblogini artikkelissa Some framework to Syrian crisis [...]

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