Syria: The Way Forward (ICOS, December 2012)

This paper reviews the history of the modern Syrian state and the diverse domestic, regional and international factors that have led to the current conflict. It includes a description of the key government and opposition actors and an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Syrian military and the Free Syrian Army. The paper also reviews the dynamics feeding into the conflict and the convergence of pressures which have led to the continuing violence in the country.
The paper applies the insights and information about the conflict gathered from a recent ICOS field research expedition in Syria, in November 2012. This research was focused on the views of fighting aged males who were FSA supporters in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
Although the fighting in Syria has its roots in the wave of revolt in the Arab region, there are three key interrelated factors in Syria’s dynamics which have given the conflict its current form.
Firstly, in the last decade, Syria has witnessed a flood of rural migrants – mostly Sunni Muslims ‐ into its cities. This migration, combined with a large proportion of young people living in urban settings has exacerbated existing social and economic deprivation in these areas. Secondly, the Assad regime ‐ a brutal police state ‐ has manipulated anxiety among Syrian minorities, and expanded the Assad cult of personality whilst stifling legitimate forms of dissent. This has contributed to the ruling Ba’th party abandoning its once relatively progressive socio‐economic agenda. Thirdly, there has been a resurgence of political Islam in the region which holds a deep ideological aversion to the apparently secular and predominantly Alawite, regime.
When the first protests occurred in Syria 18 months ago, inspired by the examples of Egypt and Tunisia, they were limited in size and scope. But it was the exaggerated violent reaction of the regime to peaceful protests which triggered mass demonstrations across the country and ultimately led to the creation of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Since then the rebellion has engulfed the country.
The Syrian military and intelligence apparatus however was designed to have the capacity to respond to rebellion: a large and heavily‐armed conventional army; extensive and relatively sophisticated air defense systems, which despite being largely outdated are far more powerful than for example Gaddafi’s; and a loyal, Alawite‐dominated officer corps. It is now believed that Syria has one of the largest stocks of chemical weapons in the world and the largest in the Middle East. (80% of those interviewed in ICOS field research were concerned about the Assad regime using chemical weapons.) Additionally, the Syrian regime is closely allied with Iran and with Russia which has until now protected it from military intervention by the international community.
Since the 1980s, a formal, organized Syrian opposition existed only in exile. From the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, there have therefore been difficulties in finding unity and a common strategy, and the formal political opposition has had little influence with those on the ground. Indeed ICOS field research indicated the fighters on the ground have little connection to the formal political opposition parties.
In essence, grassroots opposition and the Free Syrian Army appeared as a spontaneous reaction to the use of violence by the Syrian regime, rather than as part of a formal opposition movement. The aforementioned difficulties for the formal opposition – from October 2011 led by the Syrian National Council – meant that it was unable to provide rebel fighters with the arms needed to fight the regime. This made its claims to leadership of the revolution difficult to accept in the eyes of the grassroots opposition and by the international community. The recent creation of the National Coalition, despite being a very positive development, is an indication that grassroots level opposition has the initiative and is influencing the formal opposition structures rather than the other way around.
These weaknesses of the formal opposition left the opposition fighters on the ground more open to wider manipulations from all sides. Arms and other logistical support have been provided from a range of sources. However ‐ and the picture is far from clear ‐ it seems that some of the most reliable sources for arms have been the regional jihadist networks and other patrons in the Gulf. These groups and individuals have used this opportunity to engender reactionary and sectarian forms of political Islam among the opposition. Indeed, there is a fundamentally altered political dynamic in the region, where literalist Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies are now part of the political arena and democratic process.
Syria has an urbane and pluralistic religious heritage but this is a history more of the cities; for the wealthy and the educated. The rebellion has come mostly from the poor, often migrant – almost entirely Sunni – communities, less literate in the traditions of sophisticated religious scholars, disenfranchised and often very young. This key socio‐economic component of the revolution
For these young Muslim men and women, it is hardly surprising in the face of a desperate struggle against such a violent regime, they should turn to their religion as a raison d’être.
should not be overlooked. In the last decade or so, the regime has favored the
urban elites at the expense of poor, especially rural Syrians, which has left this mainly Sunni
demographic disenfranchised and aggrieved….

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