The Syrian uprising has arrived in Damascus. The rebel group, Free Syrian Army (FSA) has engaged government forces with enough success that reinforcements have been called in from the country’s hot Golan frontier with Israel. And in a severe blow to President Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime, three senior security officials were recently assassinated within the government’s national security citadel, including Defence Minister Dawoud Rajha and Deputy Defence Minister Assef Shawkat. The FSA claimed credit, as did an Islamist opposition militia. Others have said that the killings were either a coup attempt or even a counter-coup by Assad to eliminate potential plotters. Whatever the truth, the net effect is the same: the cost of alignment with Assad is now prohibitively high.
Under a façade of strength and defiance, the Syrian regime has been steadily hollowing out. The clearest indication came with the defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlas to France via Turkey. Although many Sunni officers have defected from the Alawi-dominated regime over the past months, Tlas was a powerful regime insider with inter-generational ties to the Assads. His father, Major General Mustafa Tlas, retired as Defence Minister in 2004 after holding the post for over three decades. Through the ‘corrective revolution’ — an internal Ba’ath Party coup — in 1970 that brought the Assad patriarch Haffez al-Assad to power, the elder Tlas was critical in maintaining the army’s and the party’s loyalty. He just as steadfastly guaranteed Assad-the-son’s smooth succession in 2000. The Tlas family is deeply embedded into the political, military and economic fabric of Syria. Its defection en masse will also strain the regime’s links to its Sunni allies in the urban merchant class.
It is not the sectarian flavour of the Syrian conflict that has turned the Sunni Tlas family against the Alawi Assads. After all, Mustafa Tlas oversaw the brutal extermination of some 20,000 Sunni civilians and rebels in the city of Hama in 1982. The family has been fiercely loyal to the Assads. Rather, its defection is a clear indictment of the survivability of the current regime from the very corridors of Ba’athist and military power.
The real question is not whether the Syrian regime will fall — which it will — but what happens next. The real danger is that the government’s collapse will not so much end the civil war as begin a fresh and potentially bloodier phase. After all, the political end of a regime comes when it is no longer able to substantially assert control over territory. As the resistance in Iraq demonstrated, this does not necessarily coincide with military defeat. The Alawi-dominated sections of the military and loyalist militias are in themselves a formidable fighting force. Given the historical marginalisation faced by Syria’s Alawis and the blood on the Syrian military’s hands, they will be unwilling to lay down their weapons. Iraq, as much as Bangladesh and Bosnia, also showed that the power vacuum left by an imploding state in a multi-ethnic society creates a strong impetus towards a vicious communal politics. Something akin to this is already taking place. The regular massacres occurring in the Syrian countryside and on the outskirts of its cities — not all of them committed by the regime — are potential preludes to an uglier ethnic cleansing. After over four decades of minority rule in a police state, this trend could well accelerate with the demise of Syrian state control. Each day of fighting further closes the narrow window of opportunity for a resolution or indeed, to keep Syria together as a united polity.
Syria’s misfortune is compounded by the fact that it is a geopolitical pivot. The proxy battle raging there between regional and imperial powers, including Iran and Russia on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US on the other, will only intensify once the Assad regime falls. This competition has the potential to swallow Lebanon and to reignite the flames of sectarian violence in Iraq. A stable transition in Syria requires not just agreement between the belligerents on the ground but between their powerful proxies as well. Whatever happens to Assad, a widening gulf separates Syrians from each other and from taking control of their own political destiny.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2012.