After Gaddafi’s fall, what next for Syria?

By Samuel Perriman

In an uprising where protests have lost momentum and stalled, accounts of Muammar Gaddafi’s inglorious demise encouraged Syria’s largely peaceful opposition movement. There were celebrations in the streets of Homs as crowds sang, “Gaddafi flew away; Bashar your turn is next”.

Riding the wave of optimism, protests flared up across the country with renewed energy last week. Yet once again the largely peaceful demonstrations were met with brutal force by Assad’s security apparatus and last weekend proved to be one of the bloodiest in the 8 month uprising. On Friday 40 people were reported killed and on Saturday the central city of Homs was shelled by tanks.

With an estimated 3,000 Syrians killed since the start of the uprising and splits within the regime and its army negligible, opposition activists will be wondering, where to next for the Syrian revolution? Although for the past 8 months they have braved full-scale assaults by the military and arrest and torture at the hands of the mukhabarat, the opposition movement inside the country desperately needs a game-changer. Depleted in numbers after an effective campaign of mass arrests, the protests have diminished in size and ferocity. And so it is hoped that the death of the Colonel and the end of NATO operations in Libya on Monday might bring renewed vigor to Syria.

“The focus of the world will now turn to Syria,” said Samir Nachar, an activist from Aleppo and leader of the newly formed Syrian National Council. “It’s Syria’s turn to receive attention.”

But what kind of attention that entails, no one can agree on. Since Ramadan, protestors on the streets have held signs asking for some form of international assistance. Although US Senator John McCain said last week that military action may be considered in Syria, on Sunday NATO all but ruled out the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Assad warned that any intervention would cause an “earthquake” that would “burn the whole region”. Confusion in analogies aside, the Syrian president is right. The Libya template would not work in this geopolitical linchpin of Middle Eastern politics.

As Mr Assad said himself, “Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen… Syria is the hub in this region. It is the faultline”. In addition, international consensus is lacking in plans for Syria and intervention would never garner wide based support from other regional powers.

Instead, the Syrian National Council is aiming lower. In part modelled on the National Transitional Council in Libya, the SNC is so far the most concerted effort to offer a viable alternative to Bashar al-Assad. But if it is to repeat the NTC’s success, first and foremost it will need the recognition of the international community. A stamp of approval from foreign powers may assuage the fears of those Syrians still sitting on the fence who see no legitimate alternative to the Assad regime.

But while Western officials see the council’s formation as a positive step, they have not been forthcoming with official recognition. “I think we will have to find out a bit more yet,” said Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s head of foreign policy, when commenting on the Council. So far, Libya’s new government are the only ones to recognise the SNC as the official opposition movement.

Scepticism of the Syrian National Council is largely rooted in its lack of unity. Since its founding in Istanbul it has been marked by internal rivalries and constant bickering. Based outside the country and drawing many of its members from the exiled opposition movement, it also lacks widespread support from Syrian society. An Obama administration official remarked that the Council spent more time lobbying the international community than Syrians themselves, especially the minority communities who will eventually have to be won over.

Over the past few weeks, the opposition has been reminded that a hefty proportion of Syrian society still supports Mr Assad. The streets of Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia have been filled with thousands of pro-regime supporters waving Syrian flags and posters of the grinning dictator. While officially sanctioned and often organised by the government, these displays of loyalty are not the artificial and coerced events that many in the opposition make them out to be. Whether out of respect for the dictator, or fear of the alternative, the loyalty is genuine.

Having witnessed bloody sectarian warfare in Iraq and Lebanon, many see Assad’s secular government as the floodgate holding back the waters of sectarian violence. The minority Christian community fears a similar fate to their brethren in Egypt and Iraq, where Islamists have carried out a campaign of intimidation and targeted killings. Meanwhile the Alawites, the Assad family’s clan, fear reprisals for 40 years of Alawite-dominated politics in Syria.

To counter these fears, the opposition has done its best to present a tolerant and pluralist image. Banners at demonstrations read: “Christian, Alawite, Sunni, we are all Syrian”. However, both inside and outside the country, there is suspicion of a growing Islamist influence within the opposition.

Sectarian tension would likely be in the best interest of any regime desperately clinging on to power. The government narrative has long propagated the potential of sectarian chaos in order to shore up its support. But despite isolated reports of revenge killings, the situation in Syria is still a long way away from the mindless sectarian violence of post-invasion Iraq.

Far more likely would be armed resistance or even civil war drawn along political, rather than sectarian or religious lines. Although the opposition leadership is still wisely backing the selmiyeh – peaceful – route, the young men being shot at on the streets of Homs and Idlib province are increasingly picking up arms. In addition, a small but steady trickle of army defectors are joining the fight.

Weapons have been entering Syria since the start of the uprising from Lebanon and Iraq and, if certain members in the opposition are to be believed, stockpiled around the country in preparation for an armed insurgency. Last week an unnamed Lebanese official stated that the Syrian army had been laying mines along its border in an attempt to prevent weapons smuggling.

Should violence erupt, it will undoubtedly be focused around the centre of Syria, where many armed men oppose the regime and its army. Homs routinely slips completely out of government control and Idlib province experiences running gun battles between the opposing sides.

Even if the Syrian National Council manages to steer the opposition away from armed insurgency, no other opposition movement in the Arab Awakening faces the challenges that Syria does. The government has prevented the emergence of a Tahrir Square equivalent that could focus dissent. Unlike in Egypt or Tunisia where the media helped fuel revolution, most foreign journalists are banned from entering Syria. And unlike Libya there is no open border, nor an opposition city like Benghazi, where defectors and rebels can shelter and organise. Finally, with allies Russia and China in the Security Council, significant UN sanctions or foreign aid are extremely unlikely prospects.

A decisive end to the Syrian uprising is nowhere in sight. Assad will not stay the hand of his security forces and the protestors will not be packing up and going home. It is possible that the peaceful protests that have so far withstood 8 months of violent repression will eventually lose all momentum, but too much blood has been spilled for Syria to return to a pre-March state of affairs. Instead, parts of the opposition are arming themselves in preparation for a violent confrontation. With the international community unwilling or unable to help, Syria could be heading towards full-blown civil-war.

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