The ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of last year resulted in a major shifting of the Arab political landscape and brought about the overthrow of a number of deep-seated and oppressive regimes and dictators. Like in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt, protests erupted in Syria; unlike these other countries, however, the uprising in Syria remains unresolved and has evolved into a bloody civil conflict, one which is estimated to have caused over 30,000 Syrians casulaities1 and which has left destruction, lawlessness, and fear across the country. As the conflict matures, a number of issues have become apparent which will need to be addressed in order to ensure a peaceful resolution to and transition away from the unrest. These issues include the growth of sectarianism, the militarization and radicalization of the opposition, and the decay of the Syrian state. A resolution to the conflict has yet to be found, and thus far the international community has been mired in its inability to decisively influence the situation in Syria. That being said, a number of options for policymakers to consider do exist. These options include military intervention, increased economic sanctions on the Syrian regime, and the dismantling of the Syrian regime from the inside. Considering the merits and difficulties of each option, it is the last one which I would personally recommend.
The crisis in Syrian has evolved since its beginnings in March 2011, when nationwide demonstrations broke out as a part of the wider “Arab Spring” protest movement. In April 2011, Syrian security forces were deployed to quell the uprisings, marking the beginning of the Syrian regime’s usage of armed force against protesters. This armed repression was a part of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s “security solution”, one which the regime thought would enable it to regain the initiative and restore law and order2.In practice, however, the Syrian security forces’ brutal and disorderly conduct bolstered support for and hardened the uprising, contributed to its militarization, and dissolved the legitimacy of and international support for the Syrian regime. In response to the opposition gaining momentum and the continuation of violence, in late January 2012 the Syrian military staged a series of operations in the vicinity of Damascus, representing the shifting of regime strategy from a “security” to a “military” solution. Since then the Syrian military has fought using ‘scorched-Earth’ counterinsurgency tactics3, and reports of military-endorsed arson, massacres, and indiscriminate targeting have eroded the military’s reputation and prompted the armed opposition to increase their mobility, go on the offensive, and seek better weapons4. As the conflict escalates into civil war, the fighting in Syria has continued unabated and causalities continue to mount on both sides. The conflict has pushed different groups of Syrian society onto opposing sides, prompting concern that the fighting in Syria will evolve into a sectarian civil war. The protesters and armed forces of the opposition are comprised largely of Sunnis, the religious majority of Syria which has been long excluded from the upper echelons of the regime by its Alawite leadership. Among those remaining loyal to the regime are members of the Alawite sect as well as many Christians, both of which are minority groups concerned about the notion of a predominately Sunni uprising5.. Forces on both sides of the conflict include armed opposition groups, the most prominent of which is ‘The Free Syrian Army’, Salafi armed groups such as ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’ and ‘Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham’6, and the Syrian Army and Shabiha militiamen serving the Syrian regime.
The international community has attempted to influence and shape the direction of the conflict since its beginning. The Arab League, the United States, the European Union, and numerous other countries have condemned the Syrian regime and its use of violence against protesters. In order to bolster the strength of the opposition and weaken the Syrian regime’s legitimacy, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and a number of Western countries, such as the United States, have provided opposition forces with non-lethal military aid and intelligence. Still, a resolution to the conflict brought about by the actions of the international community appears unlikely. Nearly every action towards solving the conflict brought forth through the UN has failed because China and Russia, which have vested economic and security interests in Syria and with the Syrian regime, sit on the UN Security Council and have thus vetoed resolutions targeted against the Syrian regime7. Meanwhile, military intervention by the international community seems unlikely due to the unique circumstances involved with Syria: the relative strength of the Syrian military, the dense population, Syria’s proximity to Israel, and the threat of an expansion of the conflict into a regional war.
One of the most pressing issues of the Syrian conflict is sectarianism; the division of the conflict between different religious and ethnic groups could transform it from a struggle against the Syrian regime into a struggle between the Syrian people. There exists an acute anxiety amongst minorities about the predominately Sunni uprising, as these minorities fear discrimination or retribution should the regime be toppled. To exacerbate the issue, the Syrian regime has conducted a strategy of inciting sectarian tensions to scare these minorities away from the opposition8. Deepening anti-Alawite sentiment presents a serious threat, and deep-seated prejudices and hatred towards the Alawite sect is rising9. The Alawites are perceived as the ‘other’, and a common notion is that they are a group which has colonized parts of the territory and are incapable of assimilating with other Syrians. The Alawites as a whole are associated with the brutality of the Syrian regime, and are thus widely assumed to be devoid of ‘morals’ or sympathy towards the Syrian opposition. Associated with the anti-Alawite sentiment are growing anti-Shiite feelings. Feelings towards Shiites have deteriorated in Syria at an alarming rate; the example of a story of Sunni massacres at the hands of Shiites being accepted by many Sunnis9 demonstrates the growing divide between Sunnis and Shiites. Much of the anti-Shiite sentiment can be attributed to the mounting Sunni-Shiite antagonism within the region, and the behavior of Shiite actors such as Iran and Hezbollah has generated resentment in Syrian society for which Syrian Shiites have paid the price. The development of sectarian strife within Syria will have serious consequences. If minority groups such as the Alawites and Shiites fear discrimination and retribution, they will be much more willing to support the Sunni regime until the very end, thereby prolonging the conflict10. The danger of widespread sectarian reprisals, indiscriminate sectarian killings, and forced displacement will exacerbate the already bloody and destructive nature of the conflict and will serve to dissolve Syrian society even further. Finally, if the opposition is successful in toppling the Syrian regime amidst growing sectarian tension, then the new Syrian state, already weakened in its state of transition, will have to struggle with the debilitating issues that sectarian violence will surely bring.
Another developing issue that poses serious challenges to a resolution of the Syrian conflict is the growing militarization and radicalization of the armed opposition. Ever since the failure of peaceful protests to usher in political change and the development of an armed response to the uprising from the Syrian regime, the opposition has necessarily taken up arms and begun to conduct military operations. The Syrian security forces and their proxies are subjected to ever-increasing attacks11, and armed opposition groups have begun to become emboldened in their offensives and successes on the ground. A major concern with the growing militarization of the opposition is that the growing vacuum of power left in the wake of retreating regime forces can be filled by groups that have dubious ties, uncertain political or fundamentalist leanings, or are unresponsive to the internationally-recognized Syrian National Council. Left in armed control of territory and therefore to their own devices, it is also entirely possible that militarized opposition groups could carry out sectarian violence, criminal activity, and spread chaos. Additionally, the militarization of the opposition provides opportunities for the regionalization of the conflict, as regional and international governments and non-state actors could exploit the uprising to cement their own influence by equipping groups with arms to act as local proxies12. With the growing militarization of the opposition and proliferation of arms and military supplies amongst its ranks, any Syrian government succeeding a toppled regime will face enormous difficulties reigning in armed militias, securing its territory, and securing its legitimacy as the sole representative of the Syrian people. A further issue associated with the militarization of the opposition is its radicalization, particularly by Salafi participation. Salafi opposition organizations have found their ideology to be appealing during a time of considerable suffering and confusion while other approaches to the conflict have been exhausted13. The infusion of Salafi radicalism into the opposition draws various areas of concern. The Syrian regime has sought to paint the opposition as violent Islamic extremists; because of this, it has argued that the legitimacy of its suppression campaign against the uprising stems from it seeking to root out extremism. Thus, actual Salafi participation in the uprising has allowed the Syrian regime to justify its thesis and its repression. Salafi influence has incited foreign Jihadists and Islamic sponsors to take up the fight14, and this has frightened and concerned a number of potential backers to the oppositions cause and weakened the opposition’s broader appeal. Should the Salafi influence be more pervasive in the opposition, the fundamentalist outlook will deepen sectarian tensions and concern among minorities as well as liberal activists. At a time when the conflict teeters dangerously into become a sectarian struggle, such a radicalization would surely send it over the edge.
The decay of the Syrian state over the past year of conflict is also an issue of serious concern. Throughout the uprisings the Syrian regime has used divisive tactics to frighten Syrians into accepting its rule, and has sought to play minorities against the Sunni majority to hold onto its power. A blind eye has been turned to the increasing criminalization of its military forces, allowing for theft, kidnapping, and weapon smuggling to become prolific15. Meanwhile, corruption and incompetence occurs with impunity. The corrosion of state institutions and societal cohesion within Syria could prove devastating to its post-uprising recovery. Without functional institutions and civil society, it will be difficult for the Syrians to begin to rebuild their state following the conflict and ensure governmental integrity and stability. Deep-seated mistrust and resentment between opposing sides of society also promises to make reconciliation incredibly difficult, and rampant criminality in some areas of the country could threaten the security and legitimacy of a newly formed, weakened state. Additionally, a major economic crisis is looming, as the international sanctions bring business to a standstill and the regime empties state coffers to hold onto power. A weak economy could easily weaken a new government, which will already have the struggle of trying to prove its legitimacy and consolidate its power. Therefore, the decay of the Syrian state, coupled with economic malaise and social division, means that the transition which the Syrians might face will be far more daunting and difficult than those experienced in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt.
Options available to the international community and the United States for resolving the crisis in Syria are extremely limited. The fact that little action of substance has thus far been taken by the international community against Syria demonstrates this. The dangers of international involvement are numerous: overreach can draw Hezbollah or Iran into the conflict and broaden it to encompass the entire region, intervention can cause unnecessary causalities and incite anger towards those intervening, and an intervention could embolden the Syria regime to, in a last-ditch effort, increase its repression or bring the state down with it16. Nevertheless, there do exist a number of policy options that should be considered when it comes to formulating a policy and strategy to deal with the Syrian crisis.
One option available is military intervention against the Syrian regime. This could come in the form of a “no-fly-zone”, the establishment of a buffer zone in Syrian territory, or a concentrated effort against the regime akin to the Libyan intervention. The superior firepower and arsenal of the international community, especially among Western states, against the Syrian regime would undoubtedly prove decisive; the Syrian military would crumble against the devastating destruction wrought by an intervening bombing campaign and allow for a breakthrough in the military stalemate. Despite this, military intervention is a naive proposal. An armed intervention could provide cover for the regime’s allies, such as Hezbollah or Iran, to step up their activities in the country, or even to enter the fray themselves17. The Syrian regime, facing a much greater existential threat, would likely step up its brutal campaign in a last-ditch attempt to survive. Syria is a very densely populated country, much more so than Libya, and any armed intervention would surely cause scores of civilian causalities. Civilians trying to flee the warzone would likely leave the country and become refugees, and thus an even greater refugee crisis could be an unfortunate consequence of an armed intervention. Syria’s air defense network would also provide a significant early challenge to an intervening force, and could inflict serious harm early in a campaign. Because of these shortcomings, a military intervention against the Syrian regime is a risky and dangerous proposal, and it because of this that the international community has held out on the idea for so long despite the increasing brutality of the conflict. Should all other strategic approaches to the conflict fail, however, and the conflict settle into a battle of attrition, it might be necessary for the international community to begin to implement a military solution. Until then, however, an armed intervention should be one of the last options to be considered.
Another option open to consideration is the use of economic sanctions on the regime. Such sanctions could tighten the noose around the Syrian regime’s finances and, thus, possibly strangle it into submission. After all, the regime has been emptying its coffers to combat the opposition, and if it runs out of money it will no longer be able to rely on the forces it had previously funded, such as its military and other armed groups. Increased economic sanctions would additionally send a clear message to the Syrian regime that the international community does not support its crackdown on the opposition, and perhaps signal to some within the Syrian regime that they are on the ostracized side of the fight. Hopefully, this could incite desertions or dissent from within the regime. As of yet, however, it is unclear whether the economic sanctions already in place are having a political effect. The Syrian regime, already locked into a struggle for its very survival, is likely unconcerned about the state of its economy or its image in the international community. Additionally, the economic sanctions impact the economy of the entire country, including its civilian population and the opposition. Increased economic hardship brought about by the sanctions will have to be combated by a government that replaces the current regime, and this rebuilding will present a significant struggle for a Syria in transition. Thus, while sanctions could be a useful tool for enacting political dissent and change within the Syrian regime, they should be used only after an assessment of their short-term benefits and the long-term burden they place on Syrian society18.
A third strategic option the United States could employ is the ‘dismantling’ of the Syrian regime. Key goals would be to split off key constituencies in the military and business elite, ideally bringing them to sharing the goal of ousting Bashir. Many within the Syrian military power structure have not benefited heavily in personal enrichment and could be growing disillusioned with the regimes repression. The business elite, dominated by Sunnis, have also not yet joined the protests, though reports suggest that it is growing frustrated and willing to provide some support to the opposition19. Additionally, there remains a large amount of Alawite and Christian support for the regime, enabling Assad to prolong the conflict by holding out with their support. The splintering of these key factions away from the regime which they are currently allied with would undermine Assad’s position and weaken his base of power. In order to pressure these groups to break from the regime, a number of steps must be taken. The United States must convince opposition elements to voice guarantees for minorities in post-Assad Syria, thereby assuaging a major concern of Assad’s supporters. Additional efforts towards deepening Syria’s diplomatic and economic isolation, either through U.N. resolutions or other forms of interstate diplomacy, would send signals to some within Syria’s leadership that they should align against the regime. Measures that restrict the regime’s flow of cash and which target individuals associated with the repression would help stave off support for the regime provided through cash; groups might be much less willing to support Assad if they aren’t receiving his money. A difficulty involved with this strategy of regime ‘dismantling’ is that, as the core of Assad’s loyal elements are reduced, the figures remaining appear to be more hawkish types who see the struggle in existential terms. The smaller the inner circle gets, the more determined the regime’s response becomes20. In order to counteract or combat this trend, this strategy, if employed, must carefully target elements within the regime whose defection would serve a tangible blow to the regime’s strength and security. Either way, it is currently the only option available where concrete results might be achieved and where the international community can influence the conflict in any substantial way.
A review of the options available to the United States, as well as an observation of the international community’s response to the conflict in Syria up until now, demonstrates that there is little that an outside actor can do to influence the direction of the conflict. Military intervention is a naive, and dangerous, proposal, and so far economic and political sanctions have done little to convince Assad to step aside. Unfortunately, this means that the bloody conflict will continue to rage on, and the prospects for it evolving into a sectarian struggle loom larger by the day. Knowing the limits that it faces, the United States must therefore employ strategies which will support the opposition within Syria and which can expedite the collapse of the Assad regime from within. The Syrian opposition signing a unity deal to create an umbrella organization21, with whom the United States can communicate and aide, is a solid step towards creating an opposition unified with a single cause and therefore responsive and responsible to the actions of its fighters. The United States must now exploit this development by persuading the opposition to issue guarantees to minorities within Syria that they will be safe under a new Syrian government without Assad, that the opposition will not conduct sectarian killings or exacerbate the growth of sectarian discord, and that the opposition will be responsive to fixing and reversing the progression of lawlessness and chaos within Syria. By putting forth these pledges, and following them up with action, the opposition can draw away from the Assad regime its most valuable asset: support. The United States must also push the opposition to monitor the radicalization of its groups and deal with the rise of extremism from within its ranks, and also to take further steps to unify the armed groups within Syria under a single umbrella organization so that it can prevent groups which are unaccounted for from growing in strength. With the growth of a strong, centralized opposition, the United States can hope to have an actor through which it can more directly influence the direction of the conflict and with which it can help oversee the reconstruction and transition of a post-Assad Syria. The United States must also continue to put pressure on the Assad regime through the form of sanctions and asset freezes, as these measures demonstrate to those within the regime that they are on the losing side of an unwinnable struggle. Additionally, it would be incredibly prudent for the United States to open back-channel dialogues with elements within the regimes, to both convince them to defect away from Assad and to gauge what their concerns are which are preventing them from doing so. The conflict in Syria is a bloody struggle, and as of right now no clear end is in sight. The United States and the international community are limited in what they can do to influence its direction, but through the steps mentioned above and through increasingly coercive diplomacy against the regime and concentrated support for the opposition we can hope to receive the results we want.
1. “Statistics for the Number of Martyrs”. Center For Documentation of Violations in Syria, accessed November 11, 2012. http://vdc-sy.org/index.php/en
2.”The Problem With The Regimes Military Solution”, Syria’s Mutating Conflict, International Crisis Group, accessed November 5, 2012. http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%2 Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/128-syrias-mutating-conflict.pdf
3.”Scorched Earth Solution?”, Ibid.
4. Mona Yacoubian.”Saving Syria From Civil War”. Foreign Policy Magazine, accessed November 5, 2012. http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/10/05/saving_syria_from_civil_war
6. “Independent Alliances”, Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, International Crisis Group, accessed November 7, 2012. http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/131-tentative-jihad-syrias-fundamentalist-opposition.pdf
7. Rick Gladstone. “Friction at the U.N. as Russia and China Veto Another Resolution on Syria Sanctions”. NY Times, accessed November 8, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/world/middleeast/russia-and-china-veto-un-sanctions-against-syria.html
8. “The Issue of Sectarianism”, Syria’s Mutating Conflict, International Crisis Group, accessed November 5, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/world/middleeast/russia-and-china-veto-un-sanctions-against-syria.htm
9. “The Alawite Community’s Nightmare”, Ibid.
10. “The Alawite Question”, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, International Crisis Group, accessed November 9, 2012. http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/B031%20Uncharted%20Waters%20%20Thinking%20Through%20Syrias%20Dynamics
11. “The Oppositions Militarization”, Ibid.
12.Steven Heydemann, “Managing Militarization In Syria”. Foreign Policy Magazine, accessed November 8, 2012. http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/22/managing_militarization_in_syria
13. “Conclusion” Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, International Crisis Group, accessed November 7, 2012. http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/131-tentative-jihad-syrias-fundamentalist-opposition.pdf
14. “The Influence of Foreign Fighters”, Ibid.
15. “The States Decay”, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, International Crisis Group, accessed November 9, 2012. http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/B031%20Uncharted%20Waters%20%20Thinking%20Through%20Syrias%20Dynamics
16. “Conclusion”, Ibid.
19. Mona Yacoubian.”Saving Syria From Civil War”. Foreign Policy Magazine, accessed November 5, 2012. http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/10/05/saving_syria_from_civil_war
20. Randa Slim. “The Survivor”. Foreign Policy Magazine, accessed November 12, 2012. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/11/12/the_survivor?page=0,2
21. Neil MacFarquhar, “With Eye on Aid, Syria Opposition Signs Unity Deal” NY Times, accessed November 12, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/12/world/middleeast/syrian-opposition-groups-sign-unity-deal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0