By Anoushka Kurkjian

Amid a mounting chorus of regional and international condemnation, culminating in demands by the United States (US), the European Union (EU) and others for Syrian President Bashar al Asad to step down, the stakes are being raised ever higher for the Syrian leader as he struggles to weather what is increasingly becoming a stormy situation. Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing political crisis in Syria, what is beyond doubt is that the political foundations of the country, laid by Hafez al Asad, are being violently redrawn as Syria undergoes a process of political upheaval unprecedented in its recent history. The regional environment and the narrative of Arab nationalism, which held sway during the 1960's and early 1970's, helped sustain Hafez in power for three decades. Under his leadership Syria became a strategic player whose influence extended throughout the region, especially in neighbouring Lebanon.

The ruling Ba'ath Party's rhetoric, comparable to that of its ideological counterpart in neighbouring Iraq, failed to conceal a highly personalised and authoritarian ruling system centred around the Asad family. Events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya proved a lightning rod providing an inspiration and wake-up call for Syrians long disgruntled by the entrenchment of power and economic privileges in the hands of the ruling elite. The protests, which began in Deraa, quickly assumed a nationwide character, although the two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo have as yet remained largely calm.

The protesters have been met by an unequivocal response by elite army units loyal to Maher al Asad, the president's brother and commander of the Republican Guard, resulting in the deaths of some 2,300 protesters, according to United Nations (UN) estimates. The mounting death toll, with over 300 people killed during Ramadan, provoked regional outrage and was met by a robust response by regional heavyweights, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The international community also ratcheted up diplomatic pressure, with the EU imposing sanctions on Syria's oil and gas sector. Despite the regime's best efforts to shrug off the measure, the Syrian economy, which is highly reliant on oil imports, will be impacted by the embargo and the associated freeze in oil and gas investments. Regional and international investors are mindful of the reputational risk of doing business with a regime involved in a brutal showdown with its own people.

Against this backdrop, the question that presents itself is whether President Bashar al Asad retains the internal mechanisms that will allow him to withstand the greatest challenge to the authority of the Ba'ath Party since its inception in 1963, or whether the regime has been fatally weakened and will at best limp on until it finally succumbs to the growing tide of internal dissent, regional condemnation and international pressure.

Internal Dynamics

Following a week of relentless regional and international criticism and a day before Libyan rebel forces marched on Tripoli, President Asad appeared on Syrian state television denouncing American and European interference in his country's internal affairs and reaffirming his government's ability to provide security and stability. His remarks were intended primarily to a domestic audience as the Syrian leader prepares the country for a prolonged period of international pressure and domestic opposition. Despite six months of sporadic but determined protests, the internal dynamics needed in precipitating the collapse of the regime, at least in the short term, remain elusive.

Firstly, the urban middle classes in the commercial centres of Damascus and Aleppo, who have prospered because of their proximity to the ruling establishment, have largely remained loyal to the regime. Although prominent Sunni Damascene families have undoubtedly been rattled by the excessive use of force against fellow Sunnis, as well as more biting EU sanctions targeting key industries and business leaders with links to the government, they have as yet failed to take a firm stance against the regime. Among those targeted by the most recent package of EU sanctions is Emad Ghraiwati, a Sunni tycoon who held the dealership for a number of western brands, including Land Rover, Ford and LG electronics. Although ostensibly aimed at sanctioning those who are propping the regime, the EU sanctions are more likely designed to place a wedge between Syria's business elite and the regime. In the event that prominent Sunni families come out publicly voicing their opposition to the regime, the dynamics of the stand-off will shift considerably; predictions that the regime is on the verge of a 'tipping point' will assume greater credibility.

President Bashar al Asad has so far also retained the core loyalty of the military and intelligence networks - brutal yet effective enforcers of national security in Syria. The Syrian army, unlike its counterparts in Egypt and in Tunisia, which displayed open ambivalence toward their political masters, has closed ranks behind the regime. This is due to the fact that positions of strategic importance and seniority within the army are almost exclusively filled not just by members of the Alawite sect but more specifically by members of the president's own Qalbiyya tribe.

Rather than inspiring internal rebellion and bringing about a collapse in military discipline and cohesion, the events of the past six months, and the pivotal role of the security and military establishments in suppressing dissent, have served to cement and reinforce the relationship between the political elite, the security services and the military high command. The fate of the Syrian army has now become linked with that of the regime, making it highly unlikely that the army could help facilitate a resolution to the crisis. Whereas in Egypt the military retained a sense of national legitimacy and proved instrumental in facilitating the departure of Mubarak, in Syria the institution of the military has become too tainted by its association with the regime to help broker a political settlement.

Although the military high command has closed ranks behind the leadership, the same cannot be said for Sunni conscripts who share some of the grievances voiced by the protesters. Trained to resist Israel, they are proving far less enthusiastic in turning their guns against fellow Sunnis.

The regime, which is keenly aware of the consequences of dissent and fragmentation within the army, has not taken any chances, restricting the movement and closely monitoring army units who are seen as being sympathetic toward the protesters. The regime has also been able to count on the support of Syrian Christians who make up an estimated ten percent of the Syrian population. Syrian Christians consider the secular Alawite regime as offering one of the last remaining regional buffers against a growing tide of anti-Christian sentiment which has manifested itself in Iraq and Egypt. The replacement of Defence Minister Ali Habib by General Daood Rajha, a prominent Christian and former chief of staff, seems to be recognition of the loyalty and support offered by Syrian Christians to the regime. The fears of Syria's Christian minority have been stoked by some credible reports, which the regime has exploited to serve its interests, that jihadist groups, with a presence along the Syrian-Iraqi border, may have infiltrated the ranks of local protest movements. Syrian Christians worry about the disorder that would accompany regime collapse, pointing to the experience of Iraqi Christians, many of whom sought sanctuary in Syria.

The fate of Syria's ruling Alwaite community meanwhile is perceived as being intrinsically linked with the survival of the status quo. Having endured discrimination at the hands of Syria's Sunni rulers, many Alawites are loath to relinquish the positions of political influence and financial wealth amassed since 1963. Indeed leading Alawite families - chief among them the Makhlouf's, who dominate Syria's key industries - personify the gulf between Syria's ruling clique and the majority of its citizens. Rami Makhlouf, the president's first cousin who controls Syria's lucrative mobile phone industry, has particularly provoked the scorn of protesters. The fate of leading Alawite families and those belonging to the Qalbiya tribe are indeed inherently linked with that of the regime; that said, the broader Alawite community is far from monolithic. Alawites living in Syria's peripheries, especially those who recall the plight of Alawites before 1963, are among those who are critical of the excesses of Alawite urban elite. Among Alawite critics of the regime is Burhan Ghalioun, an exiled Sorbonne lecturer who is also chairman of the Syrian Transitional National Council (STNC); the grouping is one among many that have sprung up to provide leadership and strategic direction to a disparate and fragmented opposition.

In fact to talk of a unified opposition, able to galvanise the grass roots protest movement within Syria, remains something of an anomaly. Veteran dissidents like Riad Saif and Michel Kilo, who led the intellectual opposition to the regime, are now out of step with the tactics and demands of young protesters who refuse to be satisfied with anything less than regime change. Those who are resisting the regime on the streets of Hama and Deir Zor also are highly critical of the many exiled dissidents, including those within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who are burdened by a disconnect with the plight of those who are at the forefront of the struggle against the regime.

The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), which belatedly emerged to provide some sort of direction to the disparate protest movements, has yet to assume the discipline and cohesion required in transforming these localised protests into a nationwide force. Syria's regional detractors are quietly facilitating this process, instilling the LCC with the strategic direction, operational capability and structure that are key if it is to become a more effective threat to the regime, let alone a transitional authority.

Regional Condemnation

As regional despots in Tunisia and Egypt succumbed to the wave of popular protests sweeping the Arab world, the Syrian leader boasted that his country's foreign policy, in particular its historic role in the resistance against Israel, would shield Syria from the regional turmoil. Six months on, Syria finds itself besieged by an uprising from within whilst at the same time having alienated much of the Arab world. Having clawed its way back from the regional isolation brought about by the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria will find it far more difficult to regain its regional credibility and standing.

Among the more vociferous critics of the Syrian leader is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who in a rare televised broadcast chided the regime for deploying excessive force against unarmed protesters, especially during Ramadan. Other members of the GCC including Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, followed in his footsteps, culminating in their decision to recall their ambassadors from Damascus. Saudi Arabia's public rebuke of Syria is symptomatic of deep seated strategic concerns about Syria pragmatic yet enduring alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia's regional calculations, including sending troops in Bahrain to quell opposition to the ruling family there, are determined in large part by its desire to contain Iran's regional influence. Saudi Arabia will certainly shed no tears for the demise of the Syrian regime, which will strike a blow to Iran as well to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

What Next?

The domestic and regional conditions necessary to facilitate the collapse of the regime are only gradually taking shape; from Turkey to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Arab leaders, many of whom were from the outset less than enthusiastic in their embrace of the Syrian leadership, are throwing their weight behind a future for Syria that excludes President Assad and his inner circle. The EU and the US meanwhile, buoyed by their recent success in Libya, are also tightening the screws. The international consensus needed to slap Syria with UN sanctions, let alone authorise any sort of military intervention, however remains in very short supply.

Despite stubborn internal resistance, regional isolation and international pressure, the ingredients and dynamics needed to bring about the demise of the regime, at least in the short to medium term, remain elusive. That said, the long term prospects facing Syrian President Bashar al Asad are far from promising; despite his efforts to project an air of confidence and business as usual approach, there is no denying the Syrian leader has been severely compromised by a crisis that has yet to run its course.

(Anoushka Kurkjian is a Middle East consultant and commentator on Middle East affairs. She has an M.Phil in Middle East Studies from St Antony's College, Oxford.)


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World - Syria: Redrawing the Political Foundations | Global Viewpoint