Syria: not just another Arab revolt

The Assad regime is down but not out. What happens next will have serious implications for Iran.

by Michael Petrou

Not just another Arab revolt

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Six months ago, before anything and everything seemed possible in the Middle East, Syria was not an obvious candidate for regime change. Bashar al-Assad had ruled for a decade, and before him, his father Hafez had been in charge for three. The army appeared loyal to the Assad dictatorship, the secret police were everywhere, and Iran propped up the whole apparatus.

Crucially, Syrian security forces had demonstrated a lack of qualms about using deadly force against their fellow citizens. As many as 20,000 Syrians were killed in the city of Hama in 1982 when Hafez al-Assad crushed a Muslim Brotherhood revolt, levelling much of the town in the process. There was little reason to believe the army would hold its fire the next time around.

And so the Syrian revolution began slowly. The first demonstrations, early this year, were ostensibly in support of uprisings elsewhere in the region. Two hundred demonstrators, carrying placards calling for freedom and denouncing “traitors” who beat their own people, staged a peaceful sit-in outside the Libyan Embassy in Damascus in February. They were beaten and dispersed by uniformed and plainclothes police.

But the protests intensified and, as they spread across the country, were explicitly aimed at the Syrian regime itself. By spring, tens of thousands were marching in protests every Friday. Some towns were temporarily wrested from government control. Assad announced concessions and simultaneously ordered the dissent crushed. So far, some 2,000 protesters and bystanders, most unarmed, have been killed. These murders, reported by dissidents inside Syria, have been confirmed by defecting Syrian soldiers.

“We received orders to kill protesters,” an army defector told a Human Rights Watch researcher during one of many interviews the organization conducted with former Syrian soldiers now in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. “Some military refused the orders and were shot with a handgun. Two were killed in front of me by someone in the rank of lieutenant. He said they were traitors.”

And yet repression has not stamped out the revolution. This week, government tanks and artillery shelled the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, after a crushing assault on Hama. Still the protests continue. The fall of Assad, once a slim hope, now seems entirely possible.

“The regime has dug itself into a massive hole. There is no military or security answer for what is happening. They cannot shoot their way out of their problem,” says Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Syria is not going to remain the same. It’s going to change. What’s not clear is what form that is going to take. You’ve got the regime on one hand, which still has resources it can rely on—particularly right now the support of its army and security forces. And you’ve got a protest movement that, despite the repression and the massive efforts against it, has actually managed to resist and thrive. It’s almost as if you’ve got two immovable objects heading toward each other.”

But although Assad’s regime is reeling, it may not be on the verge of immediate collapse. Defections within the army and security forces are not yet widespread. And while Houry notes that some protest leaders are Christians or Alawite Muslims—as is Assad—most members of these two largest religious minorities in Syria have not yet joined the Sunni Muslims driving the movement.

Damascus, however, is vulnerable economically. It relies on oil and gas exports, which can be restricted via sanctions. According to Andrew Tabler, author of the forthcoming book Inside the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria, Assad’s regime is built on a tacit alliance between an Alawite-dominated security service and Sunni businessmen operating in trading centres such as Damascus and Aleppo (cities that, not coincidentally, have been relatively untouched by turmoil). But a blow to Syria’s economy might push the business elite to reconsider its loyalty to the regime.

Canada’s potential influence is sizable. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Canada is the third-largest direct investor in the country, mostly due to a $1.2-billion Suncor/Petro-Canada gas project in central Syria. In May, Canada announced sanctions against key figures in the Assad regime, as well as Syrian military and intelligence agencies. But the big gas project is not affected.

Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, cautions against sanctions that are too broad. “The people who are wealthy know how to take care of themselves,” he says, noting that 10 years of sanctions against Iraq didn’t unseat Saddam Hussein. Consequently, he favours sanctions that target key individuals in the regime, along with a pledge that those who have committed human rights violations will be held to account. At the same time, he says, the Syrian people—and particularly the Alawite minority—must be assured that they will not be collectively punished. It’s key, he says, that targeted sanctions are coupled with “a strong message that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And that light comes when Assad goes.”

Elliott Abrams, also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says this message should be passed on directly to Syria’s security and intelligence services. American agencies don’t have the connections necessary to reach out to their Syrian counterparts, but U.S. allies in the region, notably the Turks, do. “If the message coming from the Europeans, Turks and Americans is that you will not win, will not be permitted to win, they really have to make a calculation about what the future will look like,” Abrams says.

What happens in Syria will have repercussions elsewhere—especially given Syria’s alliance with Iran and the control it exercises over Lebanon through the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. “The Assad regime allows Iran to project its powers to the shores of the Mediterranean and to the border with Israel,” points out Tabler, who is also a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“This is not just another Arab country that is going through a revolt,” adds Danin. “It’s a powerful state, the only Arab state that has been allied with Iran. If we could deprive [Iran] of that alliance, it could have a huge positive effect. It would really roll back Iranian gains in the region.” Furthermore, he notes, Hezbollah would be weakened significantly. “They would lose, to a certain extent, their Arab legitimacy. If the only party backing them are the Iranians, then they look all the more illegitimate—like Iranian pawns, rather than Arab nationalists or Lebanese nationalists.”

According to Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy during the George W. Bush administration, the end of the Assad regime in Syria “would be a turning point where Iranian influence begins to decline.”

The greatest effects of Assad’s fall, however, would be felt in Syria itself. “Everyone has a stake,” says Houry of Human Rights Watch. “But what should be determining policy on Syria is not the wishes of Israel, Lebanon, Turkey or Iraq, but rather recognizing the legitimate demands of the Syrian people. For too many years, Syria was only looked at through the prism of its international relations. People wanted to talk to Assad not because of his domestic record but because of what he could do vis-à-vis Israel or Lebanon or Iraq. Now it’s time to recognize that the Syrian people have been living hostage for more than 41 years, and their demands need to be listened to.”

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