Civil war begins in Syria; Turkey’s stance will prove crucial

A civil war is now under way in Syria. It is a contest in which the two sides are vastly mis-matched. Without increased international pressure and possible intervention, the blood-letting looks set to continue for a long time ahead. The divided Syrian opposition, meanwhile, remains unable to articulate a coherent strategy for removing the dictator. The stance of external powers is now the decisive factor.

Despite an ongoing haemorrhage of desertions, the Assad regime maintains overall control of the 220,000 strong Syrian Arab Army. The Alawi 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard still constitute fearsome tools of repression. In addition, Assad possesses four powerful security agencies, as well as the amorphous and brutal gathering of irregular Alawi gunmen known as the ‘Shabiha.’

In the face of this formidable killing machine’s onslaught, the Syrian opposition continues to find it impossible to unite.

Personal ambitions and rivalries are a major element of this. But substantive divisions also exist. The main opposition factions are divided in particular on the question of foreign intervention. The Turkish-influenced and Islamist-heavy Syrian National Council has a vague and non-committal policy on this matter, in line with the ambiguous position of Turkey itself and of the Gulf Arab states. The smaller, leftist-dominated National Coordination Committee, meanwhile, is staunchly opposed to any external interference.

But for all the divisions, a more fundamental absence remains common to the opposition groups. This is the lack of a coherent policy for the attainment of power.

The Syrian National Council this week outlined what has been called its ‘transitional’ program for a new Syria. According to the plan, Assad would be replaced by an interim government supported by the army, which would organize internationally supervised elections within a year. These would elect a ‘founding assembly’, which would draw up a new constitution. The new constitution would then be put to a referendum. Parliamentary elections would be organized within six months.

That all sounds eminently sensible. It fails, however, to make clear exactly how the dictator is to be removed, to enable this orderly transition to take place. This fundamental drawback remains common to the myriad of opposition groups, and a more general blind spot in commentary on Syria.

Some Arab commentators have suggested that the regime’s clear lack of popular legitimacy will lead to its unraveling suddenly and rapidly. Rami Khoury, for example, writing in the Beirut Daily Star, contended that if the violence increases, the regime is likely to find its pillars of support shifting. Khoury lists these ‘pillars’ as the military, the business class, the Alawis, other minorities, and the ‘Aleppo-Damascus silent middle classes.’

It is of course impossible to predict what will happen, but certainly until now, there are few serious signs of these ‘pillars’ shifting over to the opposition – despite the undoubted courage and resolve of the protestors and insurgents. This may well be partly because the opposition has failed to present a credible and united alternative leadership around which to rally.

Absent this, the violence is set to continue. When the guns talk, the muses fall silent. For this reason, it is important to note the emergence of the rebel Free Syrian Army of Colonel Riad Asaad as an alternative opposition movement in its own right in recent weeks. Asaad’s group lacks the political sophistication of the civilian movements. But in Syria, force tends to have the final word. The Free Syrian Army is likely to emerge as a key player. But in this case, too, a 15-20,000 strong militia cannot hope to destroy a well-entrenched regime unless the regime crumbles from within – or a superior external force enters the fray to assist it.

So the key question remains the international response. France has now declared itself in favor of the establishment of secure areas to protect Syrian civilians. But Turkey is likely to be the main player if such ideas reach the implementation stage. Ankara cleverly maintained unseen links to the Syrian Sunni opposition even as it overtly developed its much heralded rapprochement with the Assad regime prior to the uprising. It has played a central role in building the external opposition from the onset of the uprising. Turkey hosted the initial conferences of the opposition, took in refugees, helped coordinate the foundation of the Syrian National Council, and is offering bases and assistance to the Free Syrian Army.

But all this is only sufficient to maintain the pressure on Assad. To tip the balance is likely to require more direct involvement.

Assad’s forces this week opened fire on two buses carrying Turkish citizens in Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s response was to call for the first time on the Syrian dictator to resign immediately. In a potentially far-reaching move, Turkey is now reported to be considering the establishment of a buffer zone in the border area between the two countries. Such an area could provide a foothold for Syrian insurgents to organize and build their challenge to Assad’s rule. But it could also raise the possibility of Syrian-Turkish clashes. Turkey will not act without international support and an international mandate. It may be that the statement by the French foreign minister was the first step in an attempt to assemble such a mandate. With the opposition divided and the regime defiant, the crisis in Syria seems nowhere near conclusion. The direction of events in the next phase will be decided in Ankara.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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