Syria is in civil war. Unlike Libya, where an identifiable opposition movement was able to garner international support against the late 20th century’s pariah poster-boy in Gaddhafi, the situation in Syria is far more opaque. Indeed, the US and the EU still have little idea of who to support.
Supporters of Asad’s removal face two dilemmas. First, the regime itself is now in a position where the chances of its long-term survival decrease daily. Simply, the Ba’ath Party regime was able to maintain its rule since the early 1960s through a combination of direct repression, economic and political populism, and perhaps most importantly, a complex system of informal patronage (wasta) that enabled a co-option of Syria’s urban middle and upper middle classes.
This latter factor is critical in that it was the mechanism by which the Syrian regime, one dominated by the minority Alawi community since the late 1960s and early 1970s, was able to undercut potential unrest from the majority Sunni community. That is, the urban Sunni middle classes in Syria were co-opted and divided through a mixture of patronage, direct repression, and divergent ideological outlooks.
Where this famously broke down in the early 1980s with an uprising by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime fell back on repression (then-President Hafiz al-Asad levelling the Brotherhood stronghold in Hama, killing over 40,000 people). This bargain is fracturing again now, with the Syrian regime falling into familiar heavy-handed tactics.
As such, the deeply divided opposition cannot currently mount a direct challenge to the regime as it lacks a coherent voice, a common outlook, and a critical mass of popular support. However, it can do enough to undermine popular support for the regime. In other words, the government is not strong enough to resist with anything but brutal force, but the opposition is not strong enough to topple it.
This raises the obvious response of: well, what about international intervention to support the opposition, as in Libya, to enable it to topple the regime? It is here that the second dilemma emerges. If the US in particular decides to pursue foreign direct intervention in Syria, who does it support?
Whilst there is the appearance of a united front against Asad through the Syrian Transitional Council (STC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the opposition is as diverse as the Syrian social landscape. The most potent forces are those within the 40,000 strong FSA, largely defectors, who have links to the re-invigorated Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
This raises two questions. First, both the STC and FSA have rejected calls for international intervention. They are conscious of their growing, but tenuous, popular support and the impacts that US backing would have on this. Second, it is important to remember that the Syrian opposition already receives international support in the form of money and, likely arms from both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both states see regime change in Damascus as a critical part of an effort to further isolate Iran.
The second question has to do with US regional interest. It has recently ramped up its sanctions regime against Iran with the EU now in line with the US position. However, a change of regime in Damascus to one that may be more confrontational with Israel would bring with it its own problems. With Egypt’s new foreign policy position still under discussion, further uncertainty on Israel’s northern front would not be welcome news for the increasingly isolated Netanyahu government.
The resulting confusion has been enough for the Syrian regime to avoid international intervention. They face sanctions from the US, UK, France, and the EU, but these are independent from a more comprehensive UN-backed regime. As Syria deals mostly with countries to its east, enough money still flows for Damascus to dig its heels in. This will also be enough for Russia, with the tacit support of China, to vote down any strong resolution that comes before the Security Council this week.
The net result is one of a continuation of the deeply disturbing violence in Syria. The government sees little alternative to the continuation of armed action whilst the international community can do little to stop it. The regime has minimal chances of surviving in the long term, but it will do all it can to cling to power while the opposition will become increasingly militarised in response.
*Dr Benjamin MacQueen is a senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University