Syria: The end

Published: July 21, 2012
The writer is a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada

The writer is a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada [email protected]

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.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (16)

  • whats in the name
    Jul 21, 2012 - 11:38PM

    My Sincere belief is, it is too late for Mr Assad, At least earlier there was a good chance that he could exit from the front door with his head held high. But not any more. He would either have to go the way Senior Qaddafi did or the junior Qaddafi (who is held up by the way). Yes not every act of death could be attributed to him but yes a good percentage of the deaths were because of his intransigence. I used to wonder why the despots and dictators whose time has come to go would not relinquish there throne. Perhaps the answer could be there sycophant coterie group who would make them think and make them believe that the rebellion could be quenched with power/violence and be suppressed. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia…Syria… Perhaps a better way was to relinquish his authority completely during the initial phase itself and then compete democratically. If the family was indeed popular with the masses after 2 generations then people would have voted them to power. If they were booted out of power democratically then it simply meant they were any way worth being booted out (unpopular).

  • Arijit Sharma
    Jul 21, 2012 - 11:39PM

    All political dynasties including the Gandhis should take note. Sooner or later the welcome mat is pulled from under the feet for a cleaning.


  • Khan Jr
    Jul 22, 2012 - 1:11AM

    Sadly it looks as if the Syrian despot will be replaced by a period of chaos, with a strong likelihood of a proxy war being waged by the Saudis and the Iranis.


  • billo
    Jul 22, 2012 - 1:31AM

    This is a good read in the situation. Syria is a place where everyone has done everything wrong starting with the regime and extending to even the rebels and the international community. The people of Syria and the rest of the region will pay the price for a long time.


  • Jul 22, 2012 - 1:59AM

    The article makes too much of the desertion of Tlas. He had been non-active for quite some time because he didn’t like the way Assad handled the uprising. And as a nephew of him is commander with the rebels his clan already had a foot in the other camp.


  • Prius
    Jul 22, 2012 - 9:45AM

    What a amusing take from ET?

    Why is the same approach not used with respect to Afghanistan ?

    Where is the usual talk of terrorists! ET goes with the trend.

    The matter is Syrians are getting their independence and their Islamic state, and it will not benefit any other power.


  • Jim Mooney
    Jul 22, 2012 - 9:53AM

    I can’t get rid of the APU ad so I can’t read the whole article. Even after clicking on the X and going to their site. You need to stop posting ads that obscure the article forever.


  • Syed Azeem
    Jul 22, 2012 - 10:41AM

    you are so mistaken
    the FSA has just been beaten out of Damascus and crushed


  • Ayman
    Jul 22, 2012 - 11:04AM

    @Wim Roffel Its not just Tlas who defected. It was his while family including his father. The family did have a foot in both camps. The defection shows which camp they believe is winning.


  • Annum
    Jul 22, 2012 - 12:16PM

    Good overview of the ongoing crisis. The writer is right in pointing out that the end result of this conflict cannot be determined and seems bleak. Another pressing concern is the stockpile of chemical weapons present in the country which could fall into wrong hands once/ if the regime falls.


  • poleturtle
    Jul 22, 2012 - 4:00PM

    You stop short of telling the whole truth. This is the beginning of the 3rd WW. It will not get better from here! So called Muslims cutting down Muslims. Sad story being repeated over and over again starting from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Bahrain. Did anyone notice how only Muslim countries are included in the list??


  • Ayman
    Jul 22, 2012 - 5:03PM

    @Syed Azeem I don’t know what news you are watching. There is still heavy fighting in and around Damascus. Also in Aleppo the 2nd biggest city. The fighting is getting wise everywhere.


  • Musthaq Ahmed
    Jul 22, 2012 - 9:22PM

    an imploding state in a multi-ethnic society creates a strong impetus towards a vicious communal politics”
    Sir, They are not different ethnicities. They are Arabs for God’s sake ! First a Sunni leader ( Saddam ) was removed and Shias heaved a sigh. Now Sunnis are rewarded with a Shia head !
    These are rocking in frenzy! Recommend

  • kasim
    Jul 23, 2012 - 5:25AM

    this writer mr. siddiqi always writing very depressing articles specialy abot muslim countries. does this writer ever write anything with hope and optimistic? that is what muslim world need right now.


  • Naveed
    Jul 23, 2012 - 9:07AM

    Excellent article, very good analysis. Good job ET!


  • Jawaid A Siddiqi
    Sep 1, 2012 - 12:33AM

    This not the end. This is the beginning of an end. The history of Syria, particularly after 1st WW is rewinding. Keep in mind that it was well said that lines were drawn in sand and they were states. Times has changed. Every state born in aftermath of 1st WW is bound to change. May it be Pakistan. Either you change or time will change you. It is that simple Think my dear all. Over all, for present, a good analysis. Keep it up.


More in Opinion