POMED Notes: Syria: On the Edge of Civil War
On Thursday, the Center for National Policy hosted a panel discussing choices facing the international community and the implications of an ever increasingly violent conflict in Syria. Among the panelists were Middle East Project Director Mona Yacoubian, Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiyya Hisham Melham, and Professor Daniel Serwer from Johns Hopkins University. The event was moderated by Bloomberg News correspondent Indira Lakshmana.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF
Mona Yacoubian began the discussion with an analysis of the internal developments occurring the ground in Syria, the ability of both the regime and opposition in survive. As a result of the double-veto in the Security Council, Homs (which has become the epicenter of the conflict) has seen an onslaught of violence at the hands of the regime. The international media has been very much restricted and have also fell victim to violence. Yacoubian believes that the siege of Homs highlights the Assad regimes continued implementation of a misguided military-led solution to quell the uprising. Yacoubian believes that the regime will not survive, as it is only a matter of months until the regime falls. Two reasons account for this hypothesis: First, there is an internal fear amongst minority groups currently supporting the regime that will take a toll as economic conditions further deteriorate. Second, Assad has seen an unprecedented level of isolation as their actions have depleted their geo-strategic importance in the eyes of the international community. She noted Hamas and Hezbollah both abandoning their offices in Damascus. Yacoubian warned against comparisons to a Saddam/Hafez Assad comparison due to the regional occurrences. Having neighbors break the fear barrier against their autocratic rulers has made the situation incomparable to Hafez Assad’s Syria. With respect to the opposition, Yacoubian stated that it faces both internal and external divisions. Divisions and uncertainty about “was a post-Assad Syria is going to look like” keeps the opposition from being united. She stated that in order to quell these fears, the opposition needs to include minorities in all levels of their hierarchy as to promise them an opportunity in the future Syria.
Daniel Serwer analyzed the sectarian element of the conflict and the role the U.S. could play in the mitigation of such divisions. Serwer said that there unfortunately have been “lots of negative developments.” Increased violence by both the opposition and the government has caused the sects to “retreat” to their communities for support, creating segregated enclaves within the cities. He believes that we “need asserted efforts to get rid of Assad.” The regime has exacerbated the sectarian tensions by their increasing use of violence against sectarian-specific neighborhoods. Serwer pointed out the 41 nonviolent flash-demonstrations that sprang up around Damascus last week. This reveals that the “barrier of fear” remains broken despite Assad’s efforts of reconstructing fear. “We need to rely on diplomatic means,” explained Serwer. He expounded on the use of “humanitarian corridors” and “safe zones” saying that although implemented in conflicts like Bosnia, the corridors were attacked. “Military action is not going to be useful, but it will increase the fragmentation among sects,” said Serwer. Serwer believes that what is needed is “observers and a ceasefire” and other “civilian tools of diplomacy” in order to return the conflict to a level of normalcy. “The way you end warfare is with a ceasefire in place, deployment of observers, and the beginning of a political process.
Hisham Melhem discussed the Syrian conflict’s regional implications. Melhem explained that Bashar Al-Assad is facing an unprecedented level of isolation, especially from the Arab world. Although the Iranian-Syrian axis that has been in place since 1979 remains a key source of power, he has been shunned by the Arab world, and has been disliked for his arrogance, which Melhem said is “very painful” for Damascus, the proclaimed “beating heart of Arabism.” The GCC countries, which Melhem frankly said, “are not interested in democracy,” but rather see intervention in Syria as a way to deal a blow to Shi’a Iran. “They [Saudi] see Shi’a boogeymen” in every Shi’a majority community across the region,” said Melhem. The Qataris, historically emphatic supporters of the Assad regime, and according o Melhem personal friends, have severed all relations. Melhem expects that the gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar will lend material support, including weapons, to the Syrian opposition. Melham warned of a regional spillover, a characteristic of “every civil war” since the American civil war, into neighboring countries. He characterized the conflict as a “low intensity civil strife” with sectarian characteristics with “clear demarcation lines.” Melhem concluded that the Regime is benefiting the longer the conflict is drawn out, a sectarian tensions continue to be stressed which will eventually lead into a violent civil war.
Yacoubian addressed a question from Indira Lakshmana about how the Alawite composition of the army is helping Assad cling to power. She said that Assad has a much narrower base of power in comparison to his father. She sees three “concentric circles of power” that maintain the Assad regime. First is Assad and his tribe, those slightly removed from him that is relatively small. The next “circle” is the military apparatus that is made up of a “significant majority of Alawite.” The third circle is the “largely Sunni-Christian” merchant class. Yacoubian stated that the solution to severing the loyalty between these circles is the opposition conveying to the groups that they have a future in Syria. Additionally, diplomatic isolation and economic duress are weakening the strength between “the circles.”
Serwer discussed intervening military in Syria is different from Libya. “You do not have the international support as you did in Libya,” said Serwer. The Security Council has vetoed the resolution. “If humanitarian corridors are the desirable option—well if you want to go that route there a much better military options,” said Serwer. Melhem countered saying that “situation is crying for leadership.” Weapons flowing into Syria is “inevitable” according to Melhem, who said that the situation is going to slide into civil war regardless of intervention. “Diplomatic Solution time has passed. Reform time has passed. We need military intervention in Syria,” said Melhem. Melhem went on to explain that the Turks are hesitant about intervention and are incapable of coordinating with the E.U. because of a shaky relationship with France.
Yacoubian addressed a question about Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict and possible violence against the Alawate. She said that there have been rumors of Hezbollah assisting Assad, but nothing has been confirmed. Melhem stressed the need of arming the opposition, enabling the communities (like Homs) to protect themselves. Serwer replied saying that the problem with “defending yourself” is that it defeats the chance of any civilian diplomacy.