What next for Syria after Assad?

The JC essay


By Michael Weiss, November 24, 2011
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Anyone who studies human rights abuses in modern dictatorships is susceptible to one of two ailments: atrocity fatigue or a disconcerting level of anger and resentment. Somewhere in Anna Politkovskaya's memoirs, she writes that she could understand why she hated Vladimir Putin but she had trouble figuring out why she hated him so much.

That's how I feel about Bashar al-Assad, a man I've never met but somehow feel as if I know quite well.

His regime now resorts to gang rape as a matter of policy - the pretty girls are given to mukhabarat (military intelligence) section chiefs, the plainer ones to the prison wardens. Eyes and fingernails are ripped from the body. Genitals are electrocuted or dismembered. Detainees are given hallucinogens so that they can withstand more beatings without passing out. When the drugs wear off, if you're lucky, you'll only have your mouth urinated in and be forced to swallow.

Study Syria, and you get used to the term "at least". At least 3,500 have been killed since mid-March (the figure is closer to 5,000 since many corpses have yet to be "registered" at Syrian morgues). At least 40,000 are listed as missing. At least 50,000 more are still in jail. And at least 16,000 refugees have fled to Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon. How many people have to be murdered or irrevocably traumatised before this nation of 23 million is declared a failed state?

The Assad regime has tried to ward off its own, inevitable end - an end now foreseen even by the Arab League - by claiming that it is the multiculturalist glue holding together a fractious mosaic of tribes and ethnicities. To prove its point, the regime has resorted to the equal-opportunity killing of their Alawite brethren, as well as Sunnis, Christians and Kurds, even as these groups have marched side-by-side in pro-democracy demonstrations, every week, for ten months.

On day three of the uprising, a man was held aloft by a crowd gathered in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, said to be the site where the severed head of John the Baptist was held. The man held up by the crowd was carrying a sign that read: "Yes to freedom, no to oppression" a slogan book-ended on the placard by the Islamic crescent and the Christian cross.

Could this be a covert play for sympathy belying a Sunni supremacist motive? Maybe. But I didn't see that in Tahrir Square last January. We may not see that kind of display again in Syria by next January, because the sectarian violence that now threatens to undo the unity of the on-the-ground protest movement has been the regime's handmaiden from the beginning. The coastal city of Lattakia has been ethnically cleansed of Palestinian refugees and Sunnis, who have been herded into sports stadiums, to make way for an armed Alawite redoubt where, rumour has it, the House of Assad will repair to defend a rump state should Damascus fall.

And fall it will, possibly sooner rather than later. Recent rebel attacks on an air force intelligence base in Harsata, six miles from Damascus, and on Ba'ath party offices in the capital itself, indicate the growing sophistication of the corps of Syrian defectors, most of whom were previously sent into densely packed cities and told that they were going to encounter "terrorists." But the only terrorists they found were shabbiha death squads in white pick-up trucks working for the regime.

Ziadeh wants Syria to have normalised relations with all its neighbours - including the one you have in mind

"Don't shoot them, they're with us" is the order given after "Shoot the protestors," which many soldiers refuse to do at the risk of execution. The press refers to all Syrian rebels as members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is said to have as many as 15,000 fighters under its umbrella. But most of the high-profile offensive operations have in fact been waged by independent regional "brigades" typically named for historical figures or recent "martyrs" such as the 13-year-old boy, Hamza al-Khatib. There are dozens of such brigades throughout Syria, all beholden to single commanders and thus to no civilian or political authority.

This brings me to the post-Assad scenario for Syria, which has both good and bad potential.

First, the good. After months of agonised wrangling, misinformation and Western condescension, the Syrian opposition formed an aspiring government-in-exile called the Syrian National Council, complete with a general assembly, a secretariat (featuring various operational "bureaus") and a presidential council.

The SNC formally opposes any kind of foreign military intervention in Syria, although individual members are sympathetic to a Nato no-fly zone, a Turkish "buffer zone" or possibly a UK-French protection force.

The chief problem is that the SNC does not encourage military defections and has no control over either the FSA or the independent rebel brigades. Until it can claim a monopoly on anti-regime violence, or even adopt a policy for anti-regime violence, it does not have a viable strategy for winning this revolution.

That said, the acting president of the SNC is Dr Burhan Ghalioun, a Sorbonne sociologist who in 2007 stated on Al Jazeera that the two biggest problems besetting the Middle East were dictatorship and clerical control of the media, arguing that these two strands were inextricably bound up with each other.

"Whoever watches Arab media," Ghalioun said, "realizes that [leaders of Islamic movements] have won the war of culture. The slogan 'Islam is the solution' - in my opinion, 90 per cent of Arab public opinion believes nothing else." I can think of a worse fate for Syria than to have an Arab Pascal Bruckner for President.

Also impressive is the SNC spokesperson, Dr Bassma Kodmani, another French-Syrian scholar and the director of the Arab Reform Initiative, a Paris-based network of research and policy institutes examining everything from modernising economies to improving women's rights. Kodmani is a principled advocate of the two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, which means that she is too much of a Zionist to be invited to address UK university campuses.

Finally, Dr Radwan Ziadeh has been named head of the SNC's foreign affairs bureau. You can't have followed the Syrian revolution without seeing him interviewed on television or quoted in news articles. An expert on the dynamics of the Ba'athist police state, Ziadeh has written the first basic roadmap for transitioning Syria from totalitarianism to democracy, with key recommendations for how to deconstruct a republic of fear without creating a Hobbesian state in its place. (His policy on de-Ba'athification beats Paul Bremer's in Iraq.) A champion of liberal democracy, Ziadeh wants Syria to have normalised relations with all its neighbours - including the one you have in mind.

Now, the bad news. Because the SNC was formulated and announced in Istanbul, and because it has relied on the Islamist government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for succour and safe haven, it has been unduly influenced by Ankara's own ideological and sectarian agenda, loath though the three figures I mentioned above would be to admit it.

The SNC has given a disproportionately large bloc in its General Assembly and Secretariat to the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted "independent" Islamists. This, despite the fact that the Brotherhood is all but non-existent on the ground in Syria, having been wiped out by Hafez al-Assad in his scorched-earth campaigns of the 1980s. The movement currently thrives in the ranks of the Syrian diaspora and among fellow travellers in the Turkish cabinet. According to several sources I've spoken with, Turkey's entire Syria portfolio now rests with the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, a man with alleged ties to Tehran.

The natural constituency for Erdogan's Justice and Development (AKP) is the Muslim Brotherhood and its schismatic parties. Erdogan's regional ambition is either neo-Ottoman or neo-Nasserite, depending on whom you ask. But the Arab Spring has presented Turkey with a tantalising opportunity to reclaim its regional hegemony, as well as to undercut Iran, its chief rival for such hegemony, by fashioning a Sunni Islamist nexus throughout the Levant and North Africa.

When Erdogan toured Cairo and Tunis several months ago, it was Brotherhood representatives that greeted him the most rapturously in both cities. But after he gave a speech in Cairo encouraging Egyptians not to be afraid of "secular" democracy, the Brotherhood lambasted him in the Egyptian press. By the time Erdogan got to Tunis, he was claiming he'd been mistranslated.

The other danger of Turkish influence in Syria concerns the forfeiture of rights of the stateless people in the Middle East, the Kurds. Syrian Kurds make up anywhere between 15 and 20 per cent of the Syrian population. Kurds in Syria suffer the same discriminatory policies as they do elsewhere in the Middle East: proscriptions on the use of their own language and celebration of their festivals, land confiscation and lack of full citizenship.

The Syrian uprising actually began as a Kurdish one in late January in the city of Hasaka, leading the Assad regime to believe that perhaps if some 130,000 Kurds were offered Syrian citizenship, the demonstrations in Deraa, Hama and the Damascus suburbs would disappear. The Kurds declined and the demos expanded.

A lthough the SNC's National Consensus Charter explicitly calls for "constitutional recognition of Kurdish national identity [in Syria] and the creation of a just democratic formula for the Kurdish question within the framework of unity of the homeland," the Kurds still feel cheated by their representation in the SNC, relative to their proportional numbers on the ground. They also mistrust the noises coming from key oppositionists about retaining Syria's identity as an "Arab" republic. More than anything, they're deeply suspicious of Anatolian power brokerage behind the scenes since the Kurds have long suffered discrimination in Turkey.

As a result, the Kurds have formed their own umbrella group, the Kurdish National Council, which is meeting this month in Irbil, Iraq, to discuss, inter alia, whether or not Kurdish parties ought to withdraw completely from the SNC. If this were to happen, then the Syrian opposition's claims of cohesion would appear farcical.

Adding to Kurdish concerns is the fact that, on August 29, one of the most prominent defectors from the Syrian Army, Lt Col Hussain Harmoush, went missing. His brother said that Harmoush had been ambushed by mukhabarat agents in a Turkish refugee camp, leading to feverish speculation among Syrian activists as to whether or not the colonel had been betrayed by Ankara in exchange for Syrian-held guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

Harmoush was paraded on Syrian state television where he "confessed" to the wildest conspiracies about the opposition. He's now widely suspected to be dead.

On that much-hyped trip to Egypt, Erdogan's convoy was surrounded by angry Syrians chanting "Erdogan coward" and "Erdogan, where is Harmoush?" Even US-based Turkey experts credit the speculation about Harmoush as credible. Turkey and Syria nearly went to war several times over Damascus's hosting of the PKK in the '80s and '90s. Tens of thousands of people have died in internecine war between the Turkish military and the PKK over the past few decades; and the Turkish Air Force still runs bomber sorties into northern Iraq on the hunt for PKK militants. For the Kurds, having Turkey as the supervisory power for Syrian independence is akin to asking a fox to guard a hen-house.

Many Syrians plainly want US, UK and French involvement. The placards calling for a Nato no-fly zone seem to keep multiplying by the day. This week, William Hague met separately a consortium of Syrian oppositionists at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is on a state visit to the United Kingdom.

Hague's resulting panegyric in the Daily Telegraph attesting to the strength of UK-Turkish relations sends exactly the wrong message to Syrians rightfully anxious about having their revolution stage-managed by AKP: "You're on your own."

Michael Weiss is Director of Communications for the Henry Jackson Society

    Last updated: 11:49am, November 24 2011