Syria Is No Longer in Syrian Hands
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Monday, June 18, 2012
When the ceasefire was announced in Syria on April 12, it was said that diplomatic efforts were in a race against time to prevail over the violence. More than two months later, little if any hope remains that diplomacy can outpace the use of force by both sides. The regime and armed opposition alike have ended up banking on violence alone. Each has a different rationale for doing so. But this also shows that they have completely lost the ability to take the initiative or to control the course of developments, the chaos they have caused, or their respective places in the conflict.
That is what happened in Lebanon in the past. This time things could go far further even than they did in Lebanon during its civil war years. Syria is no longer in Syrian hands. Neither of the rival sides, which are incapable of prevailing by force, can any longer take a step back or – more importantly – forward without inflicting a high cost on itself, and on the country.
This impression is strengthened by observations made by some of Syria’s principal Lebanese allies, who have been assessing the situation, and is supported by information reaching them from within Syria. It makes for a gloomy outlook.
Sixteen months after the outbreak of the crisis, Syria’s main allies in Lebanon concur that developments since then have gone counter to their expectations. It has become clear to them that the control on the ground of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is no longer genuine, and that the regime is not in good shape – though that does not make them think that its imminent downfall is likely, that the Syrian National Congress (SNC) will seize power, or even that the army will collapse.
Senior Syrian officials, including security chiefs tasked with protecting the regime and prominent aides, have been telling visitors to Damascus that they are bracing for a long drawn-out crisis – but also that it will end once the opposition stops receiving money and arms. They have spoken of the violence continuing for a year or more in order for the armed opposition to be overcome, disregarding the claims they were making a few months ago about how the crisis would subside and the regime emerge strong.
Some of these officials say that the regime will escalate the violence in the coming weeks in order to swing the current balance of power and shrink the areas under armed opposition control. They speak of an end-July deadline, by which time the regime and army hope to have radically changed the map of the conflict in the country and the pattern of violence and deployments.
Syrian officials make no secret of the fact that the most potent weapons – artillery, tanks, missiles, machine guns and helicopters – have been used to confront the armed opposition. But a recent phenomenon has begun worrying the regime and the army, and especially military intelligence: soldiers going over to the ranks of the opposition, either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and taking their tanks with them. While there have only been a few such cases of defectors conveying heavy weaponry and equipment that could have a big impact on the conflict, it is feared that precedents have been set and more could follow. Military intelligence has thus taken additional precautions to prevent such material from reaching the opposition, and to pre-empt breaches in the cohesion of the army and its bases and barracks.
Syria’s Lebanese allies also believe that the threatened internationalization of the Syrian crisis has already happened, and that the regime and its opponents have lost the ability to control it. This belief is not confined to Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian partners, but has also been reflected by Syria’s number one adversary in Lebanon, Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Jumblatt. He has recently seemed more cautious in his treatment of what is happening in Syria. He, too, has been reassessing his attitude to the country and its regime, and while he is certainly not set to re-embrace them, he has become more apprehensive about the possible fallout on Lebanon from the escalation of the war there.
Jumblatt has conveyed his view to President Michel Suleiman, signalled it to Hezbollah, and hinted at it during Last Monday’s National Dialogue round-table when he spoke of Syria having become part of the “game of nations.” This is not the first time Jumblatt has used this phrase. He employed it with reference to Lebanon between 2005 and 2008, during the height of the crisis between the March 14 and March 8 camps, when warning that the country’s fate was in peril.
Following his sharp u-turn against Syria in June 2011 – when Jumblatt last visited the country, and subsequently decided to back the opposition to Assad’s regime, call for its overthrow, and incite Syrian Druze to abandon it – the PSP leader now seems to have unintentionally found common ground with Hezbollah in their assessment of developments in the country.
Jumblatt has stepped back a little. He has refrained from name-calling, grandstanding and making statements threatening and denouncing Assad and his regime or predicting their imminent demise. Hezbollah, for its part, took a step forward when it began, carefully, to review its attitude to the opposition and urge it to engage in dialogue, without siding with it or abandoning its ally, the regime.
Implicit in this meeting of minds between Hezbollah and Jumblatt is that a solution to the Syrian crisis lies in an American-Russian deal, not with the Arabs or the West, nor with the regime or its opponents.
Both of these Lebanese players have begun adopting an approach based on neither lionizing nor vilifying one side or the other, the regime or the opposition, and waiting to see what happens in Syria. Both are convinced the country has indeed become part of the “game of nations,” and are increasingly worried about the consequences for Lebanon. That is the secret of their support for the government of Prime Minster Najib Mikati and the National Dialogue process, and for disengaging domestic Lebanese politics from the Syrian drama.
Lebanese allies of Syria also note that the opposition there is being armed at a faster pace than the regime anticipated. It blames the unconditional foreign “funnelling” of money and weapons into the country. But this is no longer confined to the various armed opposition factions, disparate though they are. In recent weeks, the disorder, breakdown of security, and collapse of the authority of the state and its agencies has led to the emergence of armed criminal gangs in various parts of the country. Though unconnected to other groups, they have proliferated, and pose a nightmare both to the regime and local residents.
These gangs have begun to terrorize some parts of the capital and its hinterland, as well as other Syrian cities. They have extorted huge sums from financiers, industrialists and merchants by threatening to blow up, torch or loot their establishments or premises. Businessmen who used to be beholden to the security agencies to strengthen their influence and positions and protect their investments are now in the gunsights of armed gangs operating independently of the opposition. These have become the “third force” spreading anarchy in the country.
Other information, of a different nature, from sources inside and outside Syria, indicates that the long-serving former Syrian Defense Minister, Mustafa Tlass, is living in Paris for reasons that go beyond health, and that his children Firas and Nahida are there too, working against the regime. Former chief of staff Brigadier-General Hikmat al-Shihabi is also said to have left Damascus less than two months ago and settled in the French capital. Although he has taken no stand against Assad or the regime he spent decades helping to build, one of his sons also lives there and actively opposes it.
The significance of this is that it relates to historic figures, veteran pillars and protectors of the regime. By now disowning it or turning against it, they make the burden of the Syrian president’s inheritance heavier still.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.