Brian J. Davis served in the Canadian Foreign Service for 37 years, including postings at 8 missions abroad and in a range of senior assignments in Ottawa. His career in the Foreign Service culminated in his posting as the Canadian Ambassador to Syria from 2003 to 2006. Since leaving the foreign service in 2007, Davis has worked on several projects related to the Middle East Peace Process, written and published articles focusing on the Levant, and has undertaken speaking engagements related to the Middle East.
SYRIA – What do we do now?
The situation in Syria is unfolding as many experienced observers expected when the protests began last March. The Assad regime is attempting to crush the protesters with force, not only to destroy them but to intimidate the rest of the population. Assad has promised reforms, while continuing to warn Syrians and the international community that if he goes down, sectarian violence will follow and Islamists may assume power. The reality, as many Syrians realize, is that any political reforms by Assad would be illusory. He will only introduce them after he has found a way to keep the controls in his hands.
It is surprising that the protesters have continued to demonstrate, despite suffering deaths, injuries and detentions. Average Syrians have not dared to speak out for decades, despite the frustration and despair many have felt due to their deteriorating economic circumstances and lack of freedoms. Now, however, they have been encouraged by the success of similar insurrections during the “Arab Spring” and by Assad’s mishandling of the protests.
With this situation, the obvious question arises: What can outsiders do to assist the protesters in achieving their goals? The view presented here is that we can do a number of things, but one path we should not take is direct intervention.
Despite their perseverance, opposition groups have undermined themselves. They have been disorganized, without clear leadership and continue to bicker. To solve this, representatives from various minorities and ethnic groups recently met in Turkey to form a transitional coalition called the Syrian National Council. The group was immediately attacked by others who allege that Islamists are over-represented and that the Council lacks a credible leader.
Nevertheless, presenting a pluralistic and united front, the Council has called for non-violent protests to continue until the Assad regime collapses. Their hopes appear to include several scenarios or combinations thereof: the military will implode, bringing down the regime; a military coup will lead to Assad’s ouster; more and more Syrians will rise up and force Assad out. The Council is trying to establish itself as a viable alternative that can lead Syria through its transition. Importantly, as with most Syrians, the Council is against any direct foreign intervention at this time, whether military or other.
I believe it will be a long time before the Syrian army collapses or launches a coup. Unlike the homogenous, professional armies of Egypt and Tunis, the Syrian military and intelligence and security services were structured by Hafez Assad precisely to avoid coups. Key positions are filled by loyal Alewites. The worker bees and even many senior positions are occupied by Sunnis but with a healthy blend from various minorities. To advance in the ranks, loyalty to the regime comes above all else and there is always someone prepared to rat out suspect colleagues. Sadly, this pattern occurs in other institutions around Syria, which is why there are few organizations in the country with integrity. The Syrian people deserve better but, for the majority of Syrians, it is the only environment they have ever known.
As for desertions from the military, most lower-ranked soldiers are neither well educated nor worldly. Often isolated from the general population, their knowledge of events around them is limited and managed. They are required to follow orders, ask no questions, and act without understanding why or whom they may be fighting. Consequently, while some will desert because they are influenced by outside sources, most will not, unless there is a breakdown in command at senior levels.
In the short to medium term, I also consider it unlikely, without additional catalysts, that popular protests will reach the point, as in Egypt and Tunis, where the regime collapses. Many Syrians still believe in Assad and want to give him more time to effect change. Others are fearful of what might happen if he falls, especially some minorities and privileged groups. It will take more than pockets of protests to cut that umbilical cord. This is where the West can play a role.
The UN, the USA, EU, Canada and other countries have called on Assad to leave and have implemented a range of sanctions to undermine the regime. It is noteworthy that many Arab countries, as well as Syrian allies like Turkey and Iran have also exhorted Assad to cease the violence and to find a peaceful solution. Noteworthy, because not many years ago, few of those countries would have publicly berated a fellow leader. It is deeply ironic that several of them still operate under an autocratic leadership and one must conclude that they are doing this less out of concern for the Syrian people or because of a sudden conversion to democratic principles than out of fear that if they are not on the right side of history, they may soon be joining the Mubaraks, Ben Alis and Gaddafis.
As difficult as it is to sit on the sidelines and watch the situation without a more forceful intervention, this is precisely what the international community should be doing. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which have killed so many and drained billions of dollars from the West’s coffers, are useful examples of what not to do. Those countries are still mired in centuries-old internal conflicts that will long outlast the West’s presence on the ground. The same would happen in Syria. Some will point to Libya as an example of a successful military intervention but how the Libyan situation will unfold remains uncertain. Moreover, Western intervention received the blessing of the Arab League, thus legitimating NATO’s actions. In the case of Syria, a similar invitation is unlikely, unless the situation degenerates into all out civil war.
Egypt and Tunis are better examples of how to handle Syria, allowing public pressure to force change without foreign interference. In the case of Egypt, supporting the demands from the street without heavy-handed intervention regained for the West, particularly for the USA, some of the credibility it had lost from decades of interference and manipulation of Arab governments. Of course, this also means accepting whatever political system replaces the old. The West has preached democracy in the Middle East for decades; now, it must be prepared to live with the results.
This does not leave Western governments, nor for that matter, other states in the region, powerless in influencing developments in Syria. They can and should use indirect pressures. They should apply sanctions to the maximum. Ordinary Syrians will be affected but there is a price to be paid for freedoms and the Syrian opposition needs to feel international support. More importantly, sanctions will begin to squeeze the business elite, who have stood by Assad until now but who may begin to question the costs of their allegiance. Syrian merchants have circumvented sanctions, wars and other impediments for decades, even centuries. However, this time, they are faced with a different situation. A popular uprising is underway. At some point, they may decide that Assad can no longer protect them nor assure the benefits that have tied them to him. When that happens, their loyalty may falter, thereby weakening the regime further.
A severely weakened economy will also feed public discontentment. As Government revenues continue to dwindle, can the regime sustain the expensive subsidies it currently offers to Syrians for a wide range of goods? Syrians are already faced with an astronomical youth unemployment rate, extremely low incomes and shortages of daily materials. At some point, if that situation continues, more and more will be drawn to join the protests against Assad.
When the opposition groups achieve greater stability and cohesion, the international community should get to know them and offer not only moral support but to assist them in rebuilding Syrian institutions after the regime is gone. If the regime continues to survive, more opposition members will come to believe that they must take up arms. Some seem to have done so already. There should be no question of the West arming those groups. Such adventures in the Middle East have usually come back to haunt us and to further destabilize the area. The region does not need more armed and trained fighters acquiring expertise in guerrilla warfare. Nor should any steps be taken that might be interpreted as manipulation of the opposition. Syrians have a healthy distrust of the West and any suggestion that opposition groups are western puppets will be used by Assad to undermine them.
When the Assad regime eventually falls, and sooner or later it will, we should be ready for the aftermath. It is difficult to predict what will happen. Much is made of the potential for sectarian violence but some of this is due to deliberate efforts by the regime to foster that idea. Nevertheless, the potential is real. Syria has divisions along ethnic, religious, tribal, secular/Islamic, and even economic lines. Adding to this volatile mix, a half million Palestinian refugees have lived there for decades. It is a society that has not known openness and the freedom to resolve differences through discussion and debate. Rather, suspicions and misinformation have taken root, among communities, villages, groups. In such an environment, it is easy to exploit ignorance and fears.
Despite this, there are grounds for optimism. Syria has a justly deserved, centuries-long history of tolerance and of generosity towards each other and towards others. These qualities can prevail, provided wise leaders emerge during the transition and that meddlers, both domestic and international, can be kept at bay.
The Syrian people want change. They are finding their voices after decades of silence. They now realize that they can only create opportunity and find freedoms if the Assad regime disappears. Even one year ago, no Syrian would have believed it possible to be at this juncture. The path to victory will not be easy and will take time. Syrians want the West’s support in whatever way we can offer it short of military action or compromising their integrity. Respecting that position should be our guide to developing appropriate policies towards Syria at this time.