There are two possible trajectories for the current Syrian crisis. The first is a purely military scenario in which the opposition forces engage the regime in a bitter war of attrition until its annihilation. The success of such a course of action, however, is difficult to guarantee, and the cost to the country, its infrastructure and its civilian population is likely to be catastrophic. In fact the more probable outcome is a protracted bloody stalemate, leading to the collapse of the state, sectarian genocide and the fragmentation of the country with significant blowback into neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
The second trajectory would feature a political resolution. Negotiations would bring about the departure of the Bashar Assad’s regime along with a peaceful transition to democracy. Such a political outcome is the one clearly favored by the international community and was strongly endorsed at the latest friends of Syria meeting held in Marrakesh on December 12 both in statement and in action (by not publicly agreeing to the provision of any military assistance to the Syrian opposition). It is also the option that should be favored by the Syrian people since they too have no interest in seeing their country succumb to the fate described above.
There are certain conditions that must prevail in order for the preferred political outcome to have any chance of success. The first and foremost of these is that both sides must be prepared to engage in a political process with the ultimate outcome of a peaceful transition of power to a newly elected government. Currently, however, the situation in Syria is one of stalemate on political and military fronts; progress on both is needed simultaneously in order to break this stalemate.
First, the regime and its core pillars of loyalist military support have yet to acknowledge that their situation has become critical, let alone perilous. On the ground it appears that the regime has lost large swathes of territory, including vital border crossings and major chunks of the road transport networks. There are reports of disagreements within the Assad’s inner circle over the military strategy and tactics it has employed in response to the uprising. But it is equally important to note that no major city in Syria has fallen completely into the hands of the opposition. Damascus, Dera’a, Aleppo, Idlib, Deir Al-Zor, Homs, Hama and the coastal cities of Lattakia and Tartous are all still partially or wholly in the control of the regime. Even in the fiercely contested city of Aleppo the regime still controls anywhere between 30-40 percent of the city on a given day.
The regime maintains significant and untapped reserves in and around Damascus despite the growing shortage of reliable manpower and the steady degradation and loss of war material, such as vehicles tanks and aircraft still. The feared and fanatically loyal Fourth Division, the Republican Guard and the Special Forces, who are equipped with the best that the Syrian military has to offer, are waiting for orders. Add to that Assad’s ballistic missile (SCUDS) and the chemical weapon arsenals. None of these critical resources have yet been committed with any seriousness in the ongoing battle. (There are reports that SCUDS have been used for the first time recently against opposition held territory in the north).
Furthermore the opposition military forces do not seem to have the ability (e.g. manpower) or necessary military equipment to break regime forces entrenched in the cities or even to neutralize those significant reserves being held in cities like Damascus. The regime’s strategy, therefore, has been to contract, abandoning the countryside and holding the major urban centres along with strategic military installations and airfields. The regime’s knowledge that it can reach and hit any part of Syria it chooses with its long-range artillery batteries, missiles and aircraft at will has further fueled the statement.
A military impasse endures in major cities, particularly Damascus, the political and administrative capital of Syria. Many senior ranking officers in the military and Assad’s inner circle seem to believe that they can still contain the situation or at the very least maintain the status quo for a significant time to come. Incidentally, it is a view shared by the Iranians and the Russians, the main backers and mentors of the regime. Thus, it is unlikely that the Assad regime will be in any mood to negotiate or consider alternative options that may be available to it in the near future.
Entering negotiations to hand over power to the opposition requires the regime’s loss of one or more major urban cities. The potential ability to seriously threaten core areas of Alawites, Assad’s tribesmen, and Damascus simultaneously would be significant game changers. The loss of Aleppo and Idlib would put opposition forces within reach of the Homs and Hama hinterlands, core areas of the Alawite communities. The loss of Deir Al-Zor would lay open the desert road Tariq Al-Badiya that swings across the eastern steppe through Palmyra and opens up the eastern and southern approaches to Damascus, where fighting is on-going. Such a threat would force the regime and its Iranian and Russian mentors to reconsider their calculus regarding the containment of the crisis, making them more likely to seriously engage in alternative options, such as negotiations for a transition.
What will shake up the stalemate and potentially force the senior military officers within the inner circle, and possibly even the Assads themselves, to reconsider?
In order to bring about such a significant shift, the opposition military forces need to acquire the necessary qualitative resources to topple those first dominoes and break this military stalemate. Advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as well as secure communication equipment are a prerequisite but not sufficient. More importantly, the opposition must have in place a credible negotiating body to engage the Assad regime and hold them accountable for the enforcement of whatever provisions for a peaceful transition are agreed upon, notably the safety of the core Alawite areas and their protection from retribution attacks. This last point is of major concern to the Alawite minority that forms the rump of the loyalist forces to regime. It is likely to be a deal breaker if it cannot be guaranteed.
Recently some progress has been made with regards to the emergence of a credible negotiating body from the opposition. The National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition, also known as SOC, was formed in Doha on November 8-11. SOC represents the unification of various opposition factions under a twelve-point agreement plan headed by Moaz Al-Khatib (a cleric and former imam of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus). His two deputies are Riad Seif and Suheir Atasi (both prominent dissidents and activists); a third is still to be named by the Kurds. Another position, which is thus far poorly understood, is that of secretary general, to be held by Mustapha Sabagh (head of the Syrian Businessmen Group).
One month into its formation, there are few details known about the precise structure of the new coalition, or the mechanisms for decision making within it. Nor is there a timeline for achieving its political goals. All this points to a clear lack of strategy and planning on the part of those who put this coalition together and those currently leading it (despite the best efforts of a valiant few).
Of even greater concern is the increasing and disproportionate representation and influence of Syrian National Council cadres within the new coalition. The poor performance of the SNC (the predecessor of SOC) is legendary. Many in the opposition both revile and delegitimize the SNC’s leadership. But these same SNC leaders and senior cadres now represent almost 40 percent of the new coalition. George Sabra, the head of the SNC, has even demanded and been given a deputy position in the new organization. The unfortunate overpopulation of SNC members in the coalition means that the SNC’s rampant malfeasance and personal bickering will be transferred to the new coalition. The SOC will be stricken with the very malaise that afflicted its predecessor.
Such challenges have significantly hampered the ability of the coalition to agree on the makeup of a transitional technocratic government. In spite of cajoling and intense pressure that had been brought to bear on the SOC leadership, no transitional government was established in time for the December 12 Friends of Syria meeting held in Marrakesh. The urgency with which many in the international community were pushing for such a transitional government is hardly surprising given the fragile nature of the coalition and the tensions already emerging between its various components.
In fact, a technocrat dominated transitional government—removed from the current political opposition circus and its leadership—would provide the sort of credible body that the Syrian regime might be willing to negotiate a transition as and when the time comes. But for such a body to be credible, it would also need to have some sort of command or influence over the opposition’s armed components. At the very least, the technocratic entity must be able to guarantee the acceptance of any binding agreements made on behalf of the opposition as a whole.
The formation of this joint military council is significant because it enables coordination between the SOC, the emerging technocrat government, and the opposition’s brigades. There are indications of efforts toward uniting the main military brigades of the opposition, with the recent announcement of the formation of the Higher Council Joint Military Command headed by General Salim Idriss. In their press statement the council declared its commitment to freedom, justice and equality and identified itself as Islamic and moderate. The new joint military council has five regional commands covering operations across Syria.
So, if slowly, the conditions needed to bring about the Syrian regime’s necessary shift in position are gradually being checked off, such as the apparent coalescence of the opposition’s disparate political and military entities, along with their latest advances on the ground around Aleppo and Damascus. Assad’s international backers are seeing the writing on the wall. That Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov announced recently that the Assad regime may fall—and the latest comments by Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Shara’a that the Syrian army cannot defeat the rebel force—can be read as a reflection of such a shift. All that remains now is for the regime to recognize that it is time for the Assads to leave: time to negotiate a transition or face eventual collapse and annihilation.
Amr Al-Azm is an associate professor of Middle East History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University.