After Aleppo: A Return to the Status Quo

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A Syrian boy plays with a tank in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, on 11 August 2012. (Photo: AFP - Phil Moore)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Monday, August 13, 2012

The battle for Aleppo is not completely over, but it is almost there as far as the Assad regime is concerned. Ending the presence of the military opposition there may require a few more days. Reclaiming the strategic part of the city, the Salaheddine neighborhood, made up for the morale blow that the regime and President Bashar al-Assad received from the defection of prime minister Riad Hijab.

Hijab and others who defected, such as ambassadors and prominent officers like Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, left the regime but were not welcomed by the opposition. Instead they found themselves on the margins of developments in Syria, though it appears that Saudi Arabia promised Tlass a future role.

These defectors lost out on their regime role and have no role in the opposition, as they only succeeded in making media noise for a few days. This was especially the case with Hijab, who fled Syria as he announced his defection. The opposition took advantage of Hijab’s departure without allowing him to join its ranks. Even though he is the highest political official to rebel against President Assad while in office, his defection did not shake the regime.

Hijab never intimated what he was planning to do. At the beginning of the uprisings, he was appointed as governor of Latakia for two months. He tried to absorb the protests against the regime in that province and engage in dialogue with the organizers to avoid violence. In April 2011, he became minister of agriculture.

He expressed to his leadership more than once the need to avoid using violence in Deir Ezzor, his birthplace, and to find a political solution for the protests in a region populated by tribes, including his own. He feared that violence would beget revenge, a custom that is not alien to tribal traditions.

He informed the leadership of his assessment of what was happening in Deir Ezzor, pointing out that its fighters are Syrian with few foreigners – some are Iraqi who belong to al-Qaeda. The regime has previously turned a blind eye to them when they fought alongside the “Sunni resistance” in Iraq. Hijab continued to discourage the use of violence.

When the national leadership of the Baath Party suggested his name along with two others to head the government, he was viewed as a dynamic and charismatic minister who travels between provinces and engages in dialogue with farmers. His approach was unlike the prime minister at the time, Adel Safar, who is known for his stiffness and inaction.

Hijab seemed to be the kind of personality that would be accepted by the internal opposition and would be suitable to head a government that includes members of the opposition, like Qadri Jamil and Ali Haidar. Since the Baath Party has the majority in parliament and the prime minister should be Baathist, Hijab – a member of the Baath Party – was therefore chosen for the position.

He was not Assad’s man, like vice president Farouk al-Sharaa and foreign minister Walid Moallem, both Sunni officials like Hijab himself. Nor was he part of the circle close to the president’s decision-making process, like the men who work in intelligence.

Since the days of Hafez Assad, Syrian governments were formed by men in intelligence agencies, especially the internal security branch which played a significant role in the 1970s and 1980s in forming governments.

There’s still a hidden detail in what happened on the eve of Hijab’s defection. One side said that he defected before he was dismissed, while the other said that he was dismissed before he defected. In constitutional and political logic, the prime minister resigns or is dismissed but he does not defect.

This led to greater interest in what was going on in Syria by people in the West, who excitedly analyzed his defection and predicted the immediate collapse of the regime. But his defection did not mean a lot for the regime as the executive power is in the hands of the president and the prime minister is nothing more than the first minister in the cabinet.

When he announced his defection, Hijab was still inside Syrian territory, in the southern Daraa province. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) succeeded in smuggling him to Jordan although the army tried to block border exits in order to arrest and try him. He managed to escape thanks to a breach in the ranks of the Syrian army that facilitated his escape. This kind of breach represents a major indication of a certain level of disarray in the security services.

Hijab’s short adventure ended at this point and Aleppo returned to the forefront of people’s minds.

Based on the impression that the regime gives about its insistence on a military solution, the daily reality on the ground reflects at least two observations:

The first is that the regime is facing persistent security problems that prolong the Syrian crisis, without prospects of a political solution. After every military defeat in a city, the armed opposition opts for security operations carried out by small groups, compensating for its loss by wearing the armed forces down. The armed opposition has not demonstrated its ability to stay in control of a city or vital or major town for a long time.

Despite its improved arms, communication equipment, and financing, in addition to an influx of Syrian, Arab, and foreign fighters, the armed opposition is still only capable of fighting a guerrilla war and is unable to control geographical areas that would force Assad to negotiate and step down.

The second point is that Assad still feels confident about the strong backbone that has protected his regime and which includes the military and security institutions. Without them the entire regime would have collapsed long ago. It also includes his perseverance at the head of the state, the constancy and loyalty of government agencies, and taking on the armed opposition through violent means.

After 17 months of an internal war that has resembled more and more a civil conflict, the military and intelligence institutions remain strong and solid despite thousands of cases of flight, assassinations of high-ranking officers in the crisis management cell, and the loss of arms that the opposition is now using against the army.

Less than two months after the events in Egypt, the military there took a neutral position between president Hosni Mubarak and his opposition, eventually forcing him to step down. The Egyptian military was never the army of the president or his party to protect the regime and its president.

In Libya and Yemen, the military split with some brigades supporting the president and others supporting the opposition, thus leading to its collapse.

The events in Syria have, however, validated the purpose of the structure that surrounded Hafez Assad and his regime since 1971, whereby military and security institutions take precedence over political institutions. One is in the hands of the Baath Party and the other is under the president’s control. The Syrian army is the president’s army and it falls when he falls.

Perhaps herein lies the West’s, and especially the United States’ insistence, on a political transition that results in Assad stepping down, while preserving the army’s unity to avoid the repetition of the 2003 Iraqi scenario. The Iraqi army was gone with the departure and execution of the Iraqi president. The Syrian army is the same as the Iraqi army in that way. Both of them are at the command of the president and the party, but the presidents in both cases are surely not the same.

And because the Syrian army is an ideological army controlled by a solid command and blind loyalty, this majority-Sunni army managed to fight the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist militants, who are also Sunni, without disintegrating or collapsing.

A telling statement, attributed to the deputy defense minister Assef Shawqat that he then shared with a Lebanese figure who visited him 48 hours before his assassination on July 18, reveals the substance of the confrontation that the army is engaged in.

Shawqat said to his Lebanese interlocutor, “We will not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take what we prevented them from taking in 1982.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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