A Sunni Islamist religious, political and social movement founded in Egypt in March 1928, and dedicated to the revival of the Caliphate on a global level. The movement currently has branches and affiliates all over the world, and continues to generate controversy due to its contradictory stands on a variety of issues including the role of violent Jihad in reaching its goal. Many former members of the movement have moved on to play critical roles in launching such terrorist groups as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The Syrian Revolution is the first major popular revolution of the 21st Century. Like most popular revolutions, the erstwhile ideals of its early leaders, a group of secular nonviolence activists, were soon set aside as the violent crackdown unleashed by the Assad regime, with the support of its regional and international backers, most notably Iran and Russia, produced a similar violent backlash among its opponents. Consequently, the country was plunged into a civil war in which various regional and international players cultivated their proxies along sectarian and ideological lines. The indifference of the international community and the unwillingness of major powers to push for a quick political solution, or to at least back moderate rebels at a time when they formed the majority of rebel fighters, have called into question the very legal and intellectual foundations of the new global order that seemed to be emerging following the end of the Cold War and the formulation of such legal doctrine as the Responsibility to Protect. The Syrian Civil War has so far claimed close to 250,000 deaths by conservative estimates, dislocated more than half the country’s population of 23 million, with an estimated 5 million becoming refugees in neighboring countries and the European Union, and destroyed the majority of the country’s infrastructure. The result is the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st Century, so far.
Prepared for a briefing that took place in Washington on January 15, 2013.
MAP OF CONFLICT
The regime is continuing its policy of holding on to big cities and main roads while surrendering the surrounding countryside to rebels. However, it seems inevitable now that the regime might be forced to relinquish its control over the north and northeast soon, a process that could begin within the next 2 to 3 months. This move will include Aleppo City, and the provinces of Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Hassakeh.
Meanwhile the regime is intent on consolidating its control over major sections of Homs and Hama Provinces, including the city of Homs where it has recently made advances against rebels, benefiting from inter-rebel rivalry and forcing the rebels to withdraw from the suburb of Deir Baalbah. This development allowed the regime to consolidate its siege of restive neighborhoods in the city. As a result, it has recently escalated its attacks on these neighborhoods using incendiary cluster bombs as well as rockets.
Controlling Homs province is critical to the regime’s plans for creating a majority-Alawite enclave along the coast and parts of central Syria, and for ensuring that its adversaries are divided into different cantons, as all major highways connecting the country pass through Homs Province.
Along the coast, and except for the area in northern Latakia, the regime’s hold remains strong. But Sunni communities are arming themselves in preparation for an eventual showdown when the regime embarks on its plans for ethnic cleansing there. The main force leading this particular Sunni effort is Jabhat Al-Nusra. For now, though, the situation is quiet.
In Northern Latakia, however, rebels control most of the land, but are subjected to continuous daily aerial attacks. Alawite residents have evacuated most of the area opting for the safety of Latakia City.
In south Aleppo, Idlib and the Hama countryside, regime forces, aided by local pro-Assad Alawite militias, remain engaged in a deadly Guerilla warfare and is orchestrating another ethnic cleansing campaign in highly mixed towns and villages, especially those in Sahel Al-Ghab region. Maintaining control over the city of Jisr Ashoughour is critical for them as well, as the city plays a similar role to that of Homs city as far as connecting different regions and serving as a point of entry to coastal areas. In particular, Jisr connects the coastal and northern regions. However, the regime’s task in Jisr is not easy as Alawites constitute a tiny minority and local population in the city and the surrounding countryside is totally inimical both to the regime and the Alawite community. There is indeed a historical memory here dating back to the events in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The massacre of Jisr Ashoughour orchestrated by Alawite troops in 1981 is still alive in the minds of local inhabitants.
As we get closer to Damascus, the regime is somewhat under siege in the City itself as rebels have taken control over most of the Qalamoun region between Damascus and Homs, and are in control over most of the suburbs surrounding the City. Moreover, rebels have been able to make incursions into key neighborhoods in the city itself, including such neighborhoods as Qaboun, Barzeh, Midan, Mazzeh, Al-Qadam, Jobar, and the Yarmouk Camp where the majority of the inhabitants are of Palestinian descent and tend to support the revolution. The regime has long been forced to resort to missiles and MiGs to pound restive suburbs and neighborhoods in Damascus, but rebels remain entrenched. The civilian death toll rises daily, but getting back control remains an illusion.
To the south of Damascus, rebels have managed to control major chunks of the highway connecting the city and the International Airport and have disrupted the operations of the airport on several occasions.
In Daraa province, Guerilla warfare is the name of the game, even in Daraa City, which remains nominally under regime control.
The sparsely populated province of Quneitrah serves as a relative safe haven and staging grounds for rebels active in Daraa province, although the regime has been allowed to violate the terms of the ceasefire agreement with Israel and pursue rebels there from time to time. Still, the province is rebel-controlled for the most part. The adjacent Druze-majority province of Suweida maintains uneasy neutrality but local sentiments are changing, and rebels are finding more sympathetic ears. A Druze decision to enter the fray might help decide the outcome of battles raging in the south in favor of the rebels, but the decision remains unlikely so long as the regime retain the ability to strike using its air force and missiles. It’s unlikely that the Druze will risk seeing their only city in the country destroyed.
Back in the northern parts, Aleppo remains a divided city, with parts belonging to the rebels and parts still under regime control. But the real story is that the inhabitants of the City itself remain unwilling at heart to join either side. The brutality of the regime and the Islamist tendencies of the rebels, the majority of whom hail from the countryside, made both sides unwelcome. But there is little that the local population can do. Many long for the relative security of olden days and miss the services that the regime used to provide, including electricity, water and garbage collection. This makes them prefer the regime to rebels in their minds, but not necessarily for the love of the regime and its leaders. The Revolutionary Transitional Council of Aleppo City and its Surroundings, a body that has emerged in rebel-held neighborhoods and is made up of representatives of rebel groups and local activists, have so far been unable to restore basic services on a regular basis despite its best efforts. Moreover, its Islamist tendencies did not endear it to minority groups or secular elements in the City. Still, When Assad’s militias are forced to relinquish control of the City, its inhabitants will have to come to terms with rebel rule, as well as with more savage missile attacks and aerial raids by the regime, and the Council could still play a positive role in administering the city on a provisional basis.
In the northeast, the region known domestically as the Syrian Al-Jazeerah, with its three provinces of Al-Raqqah, Al-Hassakeh and Deir Ezzor, the Kurdish presence in certain areas, especially Al-Hassakeh is coupled with a decrease in the levels of violence on both sides.
The Kurds make up the majority population in Al-Hassakeh, a third of the population in Raqqa and about 10-15% of the population of Deir Ezzor. They are for the most part quite sympathetic to the revolution, but the inability of the opposition to accommodate their demand for autonomy, or to articulate a specific vision regarding how Kurdish rights could be guaranteed in the future, coupled with the Islamist tendencies of most rebel groups, have served to alienate the Kurds. Under the leadership of their various parties, the majority of the Kurdish population in the north and northeast has opted for a more neutral stand in operational terms, while focusing its efforts on trying to consolidate its de facto autonomy. The regime still maintains an official presence in major towns, like Qamishly, Malkiyeh, Hassakeh City and Raqqah City, but this is a nominal presence for the most part. In Raqqah City, loyalist presence is threatened by a rebel push in the surrounding countryside, and will probably vanish in the coming months.
Arab tribes in Al-Jazzerah, especially those in Raqqah and Al-Hassakeh are not happy with current state of affairs in their regions. They simply don’t want to be governed by Kurds and are suspicious of Kurdish motives. Recently Arab tribes have attempted to organize themselves with support from the Syrian National Council, now serving more or less as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, and have launched a political process aimed at creating a counterweight to Kurdish parties in the region, especially the PYD and the Kurdish National Council, by appealing to independent Kurds and Kurdish Islamist parties. With Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Islamist rebel groups taking over the town of Ras al-Ain in Raqqah leading to increased tensions between Arabs and Kurds, the above push by local tribes is being billed as an attempt at reconciliation, but, in reality, it’s an attempt at containing the local Kurdish population and its aspiration for autonomy. As such, this move could pave the way either to serious negotiations between all aides on how Al-Jazeerah region should be administered, or, which is more likely, to a new conflict in the country pitting Arabs against Kurds, a development that will draw in Iraqi Kurdistan, not to mention Turkey, into the fray.
Kurdish majority towns in North Aleppo, especially Efrin and Kobani, are more or less autonomous but they are surrounded by Arab communities and are quite dependent on them economically.
Pro-Assad Militias: (Al-Jaish Al-Sha’bi and the Shabbiha, both recently designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Treasury Department). At this stage, the regular army and the pro-Assad militias are relatively indistinguishable from each other, and often operate in tandem. Generally speaking, however, the pro-Assad militias are made up almost exclusively from Alawites, though in certain towns and neighborhoods they tend to include Christian, Sunni and Druze elements as well. The militias were organized under the supervision of Iranian and Hezbollah advisers. Videos produced and/or leaked by pro-Assad militias show that the conflict for them has acquired an increasingly religious dimension and become an issue of Alawite pride. Indeed, Alawite militiamen seem to view their crackdown not only as a war for their survival against long-time historical enemies, but also as a sign of the superiority of their ways and their faith. Moreover, they readily revel in acts of violence, including torture, executions and mass murder.
The Regular Army: in the lower ranks, the army still relies on Sunnis conscripts, especially from tribal areas in Raqqah and Al-Hassakeh, as well as Kurdish conscripts. But the officer class is almost exclusively made up of Alawites, with some Christian and Druze officers. Some units are made exclusively of Alawites, especially the infamous 4th Brigade that used to be led by Maher Al-Assad.
The Republican Guard: The main force in charge of securing certain critical neighborhoods in Damascus, including the presidential palace. They are also involved in securing the coastal areas.
Security Forces: in addition to helping the army and the militias, they are the party responsible for collecting information on dissidents, for preparing blacklists for search-and-arrest operations, for running detention camps, and for infiltrating opposition and rebel groups inside and outside the country. A special unit was formed under the auspices of the Computer Society and State Security Apparatus to conduct electronic warfare and disinformation campaigns. Iranian and Russian advisers are known to be involved.
Police Force: in charge of local security and running the prison system.
Hezbollah, Iraqi recruits and other foreign fighters: the involvement of fighters from Hezbollah and Mahdi Army has already been proven, but there is mounting evidence as well that Shiite recruits from Pakistan, Yemen and other countries are also involved. They are more likely Shiite pilgrims who were already living in the country around Shiite shrines when the revolution broke out. Though, it is likely that Assad will seek to actively recruit Shiite fighters from these and other countries soon.
Jabaht Al-Nusra and Affiliates (Al-Qaeda affiliate, recently designed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Treasury Department): in recent months, JAN has emerged as the major fighting force on the ground. JAN’s significance is further increased by its ability to network with other Islamist groups such Al-Tawhid, Jund-Alsham, Suqur Al-Sham, Ahrar Al-Sham and Liwa Al-Ummah, among other groups. Put together, these Islamist groups could number around 40,000 fighters, most of whom, contrary to popular perceptions, are actually Syrians. As such, they are not as small and controllable as many in the opposition would like us to believe. On the other hand, many of the members of these Islamist groups may not be as extremist as their current rhetoric suggests. Many of their recruits may not necessarily endorse all items on the Jihadi agendas of their leaders. Still, right now, these rebels are caught in the midst of a highly sectarian conflict, facing off against opponents who have already proven their extremist credentials through their willingness to perpetrate massacres against unarmed civilians and to defile and destroy Sunnis mosques with impunity and relish. For this reason, JAN’s anti-Alawite, anti-Shiite rhetoric does not seem as extreme at this stage, especially when JAN’s leaders tend to downplay their internationalist Jihadi agendas. But, the longer this conflict drags out, and so long as the international community remains unwilling to support the rebels, the more committed the recruits will become to the Jihadi agenda itself. JAN is almost omnipresent at this stage, and where it is nominally absent, it is represented by groups that are close in ideology to her. More importantly, and after the designation of JAN as a terrorist organization, and the failure of the Syrian National Coalition to provide military support to rebel groups, JAN’s popularity has increased dramatically, and its leadership is beginning to dabble with political organization. In the next few months, it is likely that JAN members will increase their participation in the emerging political councils, and might even set up local governing councils of their own. JAN is already represented in the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, an amalgam of Islamist rebel groups openly calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, and has reportedly established relations with Hizb Al-Tahrir and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Foreign Fighters: there are around 5,000 foreign fighters in Syria today working for the rebels. Their numbers seem to have leveled in recent months as rebels began to pushback against their influx. Some foreign recruits have come as part of the international Jihadi networks and have become members in JAN, but most are unaffiliated individuals who came as solo adventurers motivated by Islamic and/or Arab solidarity. Except for some JAN leaders, foreign fighters are not the top decision-makers in the rebel movement, and often tend to follow the directions of Syrian rebel commanders.
Traditional Rebel Groups: the majority of rebels still fight as part of smaller rebel groups that are more traditional than Islamist in character. They are not secular per se, but they also see the problematic nature of the Islamist agenda, and prefer to refrain from adopting it, opting for a conservative but civil vision. The Syrian Martyrs Brigades led by Jamal Maarouf in Jabal Al-Zawiyeh are a good example of these groups. A mixture of these groups, Islamist groups and army defectors recently came together in Antalya, Turkey, and established a new military council led by Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss. The new military council is supposed to direct rebel operations in the country in cooperation with the recently established political platform, the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Armed Forces, but this remains more an aspiration than a reality at this stage.
The Pro-Regime Political Parties
Syria is governed by the Baath Party in cooperation with 9 other political parties, all leftist, making up the National Progressive Front. These parties are basically powerless, especially in times of crisis, where decisions are made exclusively by Assad, his family members and his security chiefs. It is interesting, however, to note that in recent weeks, several statements were issued by the leadership of the Baath Party calling for peaceful resolution of the conflict and calling on both sides to refrain from violence. Other parties in the NPF continue to maintain their silence, for now.
The Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC): this is a coalition made up mainly of Islamist and leftist figures, with sprinkling of liberal elements. The only significant difference between it and its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, is that its three top leaders, the cleric Moaz Al-Khatib, the entrepreneur Riad Seif, and the activist Suheir Al-Atassy, are highly respected figures within the opposition community as well as in international circles. Al-Khatib is the official leader of SOC, with Seif and Al-Atassy appointed as his deputies. A third deputy position is reserved to the Kurds and is yet to be filled. Recently, and on his insistence, the leader of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, was appointed as a fourth deputy. In recent days, Al-Khatib has been able to connect with domestic audiences due to his strong stances against the regime and his vociferous criticism of Russia and the international community. SOC was supposed to elect a provisional government by the December 12 Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco, but internal wrangling prevented this development. To date, no provisional government has been elected. The Coalition itself, however, has managed to acquire wide international recognition. Legally speaking, official handover of embassies cannot take place unless a provisional government is established.
The Syrian National Council (SNC): despite being replaced on the global scene by SOC, the SNC remains relevant as it controls directly and through its network of sympathizers more than half the seats in SOC. The leader of SNC is the Christian communist dissident, George Sabra, who failed to make it to the Executive Committee following the recent internal elections but was subsequently elected by its members as the President to soften the Islamist image of the Council. No women were elected to the Executive Committee or the General Secretariat of the SNC, but three burqa-clad women were later appointed in the Executive Committee. Despite the presence of few leftist figures, such as George Sabra, and few independent Kurds, such as former SNC leader, Abdelbassit Sieda, the SNC has become an entity heavily dominated and controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB): without a doubt the most organized opposition group in the ranks of the Syrian opposition, but it is also an expat entity with little relevance inside the country at this stage. Despite all its efforts to acquire new loyalties on the ground since the beginning of the Revolution by providing financial and logistical support to different rebel groups, including Al-Farouq and Al-Tawhid Brigades, the MB remains unable to influence forces and processes unfolding on the ground. Salafi-oriented Islamist groups are far more relevant, including the MB old rival, Hizb Al-Tahrir which openly calls for the establishment of an Islamic state. The MB has long endorsed the notion of a civic state, albeit, their activities and insistence on manipulating the political process abroad cast much doubts on their intentions and have served to discredit the opposition in general especially among minority groups and fence-sitters.
The National Coordination Body (NCB): a coalition of secular-minded opposition groups that has called for dialogue with the regime since the beginning of the revolution, but so far has been unable to hold any serious talks, except with itself, and with Iranian, Russian and some European officials. The NCB has no connection to the rebels and is dismissed by them. Despite NCB leaders’ nominal endorsement of nonviolent activism, in reality, they have little connection as well to the young activists who made it. In short, the NCB is an irrelevant political entity when it comes to influencing developments on the ground, but their secular tendencies, their ability to connect with minority communities, and their ongoing relations with regime figures, especially mid-level officials currently running state institutions, might prove useful in managing the transitional period ahead.
Local Coordination Committees: there are two types of local coordination committees: the official group that bears the name and is led by long-time activist Razan Zeituneh, and the countless offshoots that have sprung up all around the county. The importance of these groups is that they are made up of the young pro-democracy nonviolence activists who started the protest movement and who continue to document the various developments through YouTube videos and causality reports. Often, the LCCs are made up of young activists in their late teens, their mid-20s and early 30s. The LCCs have been divided over the issue of cooperation with rebels, most prefer continued adherence to nonviolent activism, but many have realized that armed resistance has become too widespread to be opposed, and have reconciled themselves to supporting it. LCC members are mostly secular leaning or moderate Islamist. The LCCs lack political structure and organizing vision beyond documenting developments, providing some services and conducting some awareness raising campaigns on certain issues, especially combatting the growing sectarianism and calls for revenge in their local communities. In certain communities, like the town of Kafrenbel in Idlib Province, LCC activists continue to play an important role in local governance. In most other communities, their influence on emerging local governments is minimal due to ongoing violence which tends to favor more militant figures.
Kurdish Parties: most Kurdish parties have come together to form the Kurdish National Council, except for PYD, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK. In July of 2012, however, and under the auspices of the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, the two sides signed the Irbil (Hewler) Accord agreeing joint administration of Kurdish majority towns in Syria under the auspices of the High Kurdish Council. The agreement has not been fully implemented, however, and disputes between the two sides continue, with occasional kidnappings and even assassinations taking place. Local governance in Kurdish communities is happening outside the direct framework of these groups, and order is maintained through volunteer groups known as the popular protection units or YPGs. The major difference between Arab and Kurdish political parties is that Kurdish parties do enjoy some grassroots support, albeit Kurdish youths have been far more supportive of the revolution than their parties. But the growing Islamization of the revolution and the failure of the Arab-dominated opposition to provide a vision for the future administration of the Kurds that can accommodate Kurdish aspirations made the majority of Kurds realize that no benefit can be derived from more active involvement in the revolution. Kurdish parties prefer to become more involved in consolidating their hold on their territories and resolving their own internal differences. So far though, they haven’t had much success in that. Moreover, some independent Kurds in Aleppo Province in particular formed their own fighting units and are fighting alongside other rebel groups, while maintaining their distance from Arab Islamist groups.
The Tribes: The tribes are once again emerging as a major player in the political scene in Syria especially in Al-Jazeerah region, Daraa, and parts of Homs and Aleppo. They have been represented in every major opposition coalition, including the SNC and SOC, but, like these two bodies, their relevance on the ground remains precarious. After decades of Baathist rule, tribal leaders and tribal institutions have been severely weakened. Indeed, rebels in tribal areas are not beholden to tribal leaders, still, and in the absence of credible political structures and with the collapse of state institutions on the local as well as the national level, tribes and tribal leaders are bound to play a critical role in the period ahead.
The Christian and Druze Communities: While both communities share Alawite concerns over a transition that is bound to allow the country’s Sunni majority to dominate the political scene in the country, thus undermining the various social, political and economic benefits that the two communities have been deriving for decades from their closer affiliation with authority, many segments of the two communities are beginning to question their commitment to a regime that seems intent on taking the state down with it as it contracts, no matter how fitfully. But the Christians are more spread out geographically and more diverse confessionally and politically than the Druzes. As such, the way they will eventually decide to interact with developments around them will vary from one particular group and one particular region to another. Some, such as the Assyrians, will seek accommodations with the rebels and are indeed playing an important part in the political opposition, one that is far larger than their demographic size due to their early and active participation. Other Christian groups, however, will likely stick by the regime to the bitter end. The Druzes, on the other hand, will likely seek what Kurds and Alawites will eventually seek: an autonomous enclave of their own in the south parts of the country. The few thousands Druze in Idlib and Aleppo will have to relocate or cooperate with local rebels.
The Alawites: As we noted earlier, the overwhelming majority of the Alawites have from the outset looked at the revolution as an existential threat in every sense of the word. Most Alawites in Syria make their living or derive some benefits, no matter how minimal, from some affiliation with the state and its various institutions. Regimefall, therefore, will have a major impact on every aspect of their lives. Alawite dominance of the military and security apparatuses has been noted by every Syria expert so far, but Alawites are also disproportionately represented in government jobs, albeit not necessarily in the most visible positions, and in the allocation of government contracts. A change in the governance system is bound to change all that. Alawite main concerns, however, are not being manifested as economic or rational in nature, rather, they stem more from their historical persecution complex. At this stage, maintaining control over the military and security apparatuses is the only way Alawite can feel safe and secure. With rebel advances, this position is slowly developing into support for the idea of an Alawite enclave along the coast, one that would include major chunks of Homs, Hama and Idlib provinces. The non-viability of this undertaking from an economic perspective is not relevant at this stage. The fact that attempts at ethnic cleansing in coastal areas against the Sunni population will most surely lead to civil strife there and would bring the conflict to the Alawite heartland, which remains quiet for the most part at this stage, may not prevent tis development in view of the growing irrationality of Alawite militias.
The growing sectarian sentiments on both sides of the conflict, the increasing signs of inter-rebel rivalry and disputes, the continued irrelevance of political opposition groups, and the inability of certain external players and the unwillingness of others to interfere in the conflict in a way that could tip the balance in favor of one side or another do not augur well for the stability and viability of the country. At one point in 2013, and barring some strong intervention, Syria will cross the point of no-return as a failed state, at least for the foreseeable future, ushering in the age of warlords. Turfs and enclaves will be carved out by different actors, and ethnically cleansed to allow a particular group to dominate the local scene. The regime will continue to take the lead in this process and will continue to be responsible for the majority of the atrocities taking place. But the age of innocence will officially end for the rebels during this period as more retribution killings take place.
No serious dialogue will likely be possible until these internal alignments are completed. But once talks begin, the only logical outcome will be reaching agreement on some sort of a confederal system of governance, if only on a provisional basis, despite strong popular opposition to this notion at this stage.
The ironic thing here is that Assad and his top commanders are unlikely to survive this transformation, neither politically nor physically. It’s their own people who will not be able to forgive them down the road. At one point, after the creation of the Alawite enclave, a moment will come when Alawites will realize that Assad and his commanders are nothing more than liabilities. The creation of a viable enclave requires real statesmen and not criminals who are only skilled in the arts of death. But the Alawites will discover that only when the enclave has been created and secured, which will be a bloody process, and when Assad and his commanders have moved in, and once the challenges of developing local communities have become realities with which Alawites have to contend day after day.
It will probably take 3-5 years before this conflict is brought to an end. The death toll could reach 500,000 by then, if not more. It will take decades afterwards to rebuild the country.
These predictions are based on the assumption that the international community will continue to deal with the situation with only little more enthusiasm than its leaders are showing right now. But should a more serious effort take place, this conflict could be brought to an end in 2013. This would require U.S. leadership, including providing military support to the rebels, either by arming them, or providing them with some air cover as they conduct their operations in order to ensure that the military conditions on the ground has shifted in their favor. Only then could we hope for serious talks over transfer of power to take place.
But even in this case, the opposition will still need to accept a system of governance that is truly decentralized in order to give the different communities and regions in the country the opportunity to govern themselves and secure their own areas, before engaging in a dialogue on the shape and nature of the national governance system.
Few thoughts on Assad’s Speech and His “Finitiative” – the Initiative to End All Initiatives
By appearing so out-of-touch with reality, Assad has shown that he is not in control of his own regime. He, in fact, is the puppet. The question, therefore, is: who’s really running the show at this stage? And what do they want?
Assad’s words provide few clues, but the subtext to his speech, the body language and apparent nervousness in delivery, his clear concern for how his speech will be viewed by his supporters as denoted by his repeated assertions that he is not giving up the fight against the “terrorists,” and his dismissal of the external opposition coupled with his readiness to negotiate with their backers… all these things point to the presence of a radical camp inside the regime that seems to have taken charge of the day-to-day management of the crackdown, keeping Assad as a necessary window dressing.
What does this radical camp want? At this stage, and judging by developments on the ground, the only possible interpretation is that they want to buy enough time to draw the borders of their coveted enclave, while exacting revenge against the Sunni population all over the country through continued recourse to scorched earth policy.
In short, our descent into hell continues.
Addendum (Jan 20, 2013)
Indeed, in his recent speech, Bashar Al-Assad appeared as a defeated man, a puppet, a bubble, to use some of his own terms. He stutter and his lisp, which have never been well-hidden, were more pronounced than they have ever been since his first inaugural speech back in 2000, and his off-script comments were tortured and incoherent. Clearly, this is not the man leading the crackdown that is currently unfolding. He seemed more like a placeholder of sorts, a person whose presence was necessary only until a new leadership structure has been quietly built in the background, most definitely under Iranian supervision, involving rising stars from within the Alawite community, be they members of military and security apparatuses, or leaders of various pro-Assad militias. The end result will be a new organization, building on elements from the Alawite Pride phenomenon – Shia beliefs, resistance ideology and the Assad cult of personality – and directly linked to and funded by Iran. Once this is accomplished, it would not matter how long it would take to drive the regime out of Damascus and into coastal holdouts. For one way or another, Iran will remain relevant and will have a sway over unfolding events. Once the new structure is consolidated, or is close to consolidation, Assad himself and perhaps some of his close advisers, might be seen as liabilities, and Assad as a martyr might just prove more relevant and useful to the cause of Alawite Pride than his continued survival. With his martyrdom, there will be no risk of him doing or saying anything that can jeopardize the movement and the new power structure.
© 2013, Ammar Abdulhamid. All rights reserved.