As the violence in Syria enters its 10th month, with in excess of 2500 civilians and 500 security personnel killed, clarity in terms of who the opposition is, what the government is seeking to achieve and the stance of the international community is harder and harder to find.
There was some indication of opposition unity on Monday when the various opposition groups met in Istanbul to cobble together the Syrian National Council, an apparent mirror of the Transitional National Council that, along with NATO, led the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya. The SNC encapsulates both the strengths and weaknesses of emerging opposition trends in the region.
Specifically, serving as an umbrella organisation, the SNC can sell itself as far more representative of apparent popular will, sans the existing support for the Asad regime that is still a critical factor within Syria. However, the breadth of its membership dilutes its cohesiveness beyond seeking the removal of the current regime. Indeed, the SNC brings together secular socialists, nationalists, trade unions, tribal interests, former regime members, Kurdish factions as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood is controversial, not least because of the spectre of Islamic radicalism that the regime can easily exploit to undermine local support for the uprising as well as deflect international criticism. This is compounded by the memories of the last time the Brotherhood challenged the regime in 1982.
This uprising was one more rooted in the majority Sunni community’s challenge to the minority nature of the regime where Ba’ath Party rule has been underwritten by the president’s membership of the minority Alawi community and sponsorship of Syria’s numerous other minority ethnic and confessional communities.
This has not been a pure exclusion of the Sunni Arab community, a group largely centred in the major urban areas of the western corridor from Damascus to Aleppo. Indeed, Ba’ath Party rule would not be possible without the co-option of important sections of this group who largely control the small-scale commercial interests in the country. However, the regime has premised much of its right to authority on protection of Syria’s diverse minority groups in the face of what it calls Islamic radicalism and Sunni exclusivism.
This was the same logic followed by the regime of Hafiz al-Asad during the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising from 1976 to 1982. This uprising focussed on the country’s poor and densely populated cities of its western corridor. In response, Hafiz deployed the Syrian army around the Brotherhood’s stronghold in the city of Hama, using artillery to level the centre of town, obliterating the operational core of the organisation and, in the process, kill upwards of 10 to 20,000 civilians.
Whilst the current uprising bears differs in many respects from the one that culminated in the 1982 bloodshed, consistent patterns remain. For instance, there is an on-going challenge for control of the religious institutions in the country. Last week, the son of Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, supporter of the regime, was killed by opposition forces in the country’s north. Hassoun, and his predecessors in the late 1970s and early 1980s, became immediate targets for the opposition as representative of the corruption of the regime as well as the corruption of religious institutions as little more than tools of Ba’ath Party rule.
Whilst not all, or even a majority, of the opposition in Syria both in the early 1980s or in 2011 supports this form of action, a critical element of it does, one that is willing to strike back at the state and its representatives, feeding into the violent cycle that is gripping the country.
Indeed, this also works create greater uncertainty amongst the international community on how to respond to the situation in Syria. Despite the firm statements from the US and UK after their Security Council Resolution that sought to impose sanctions on Syria was vetoed by the both Russia and China, this was still only a package of sanctions, far short of the intervention offered in relation to the uprising in Libya.
Whilst they will not be making public pronouncements to this effect, the US, UK, and to a greater extent Israel are deeply concerned about instability in Syria in what an alternative may be. Ba’ath Party rule was a known quantity in 1982, leading to a blind eye from the international community as the regime killed tens of thousands of its own civilians. Whilst the rhetoric may be hotter now, it appears that this trend may hold in the current unrest also. Bearing this in mind, it is difficult to see an end to the violence in Syria any time soon, even as the opposition attempts to put a united front on their cause.
*Dr Benjamin MacQueen is a lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University