OPTIONS ON SYRIA
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
The paths that could have been undertaken in order to influence and/or interfere in the Syrian unrest were essentially two:
Option 1: a direct military intervention - as in Libya - with the open support to opposition forces
Option 2: an indirect support to rebel militias with the supply of weapons, training and financing without a direct intervention
As far as the first option is concerned, lately the US Secretary of State, with veiled Turkish support, has relaunched the idea of a No-Fly zone over Syria's sky. In order to be applied without significant risks, this choice would imply the destruction of Syrian command and control system and of its anti-aircraft defense. Such an initiative would be hard to enforce, dangerous and easily replaceable, as has already been done, in favor of a CIA support to rebels. Anyway, Russia's opposition (with Chinese support) to the first option has determined an international convergence on the second one.
To be honest, the first option has been sidelined not only to give into Russia's uncritical support of the Syrian regime. Moscow's only ally in the region is one of the first clients of Russian military supplies and allows the Russian fleet to station in the naval base of Tartous. Western powers also had other fears: the increasing instability in the region, Iran's nuclear ambitions (its contrast would have been put de facto on stand-by), the fate of the Christians (that have always benefited from Assad's dictatorship), Israeli fears of the rise of yet another radical islamist leadership in Syria (not as far fetched as it seems since, historically, the Muslim Brotherhood has lead the opposition to the regime), the lessons learnt from Libya where support to rebels has lead to social chaos and instability and, finally, Syria's military apparatus that would have required a heavy and risky intervention in case of attack.
All the above have allowed the Syrian regime to survive to date counting on both the Russian support (that has blocked all foreign interference) and the strength of its military and internal security apparatus. But all options, as evaluated by the different actors, can have both advantages and disadvantages.
The first draw back in pursuing an external support instead of a direct intervention (Option 2) - as Western powers have done to date - is that Syria has slowly, but inevitably slipped into civil war. The collateral damage is: ruthlessness on both sides, exponential rise in civilian victims, destruction, revenge and endless clashes. There has been no room for negotiations and dialogue (as has been for Kofi Annan's useless efforts). As a matter of fact, the final solution will have to be imposed and will have to come through the conflict and - in its final act - the looser will inexorably be eliminated.
There is no room for future national reconciliation, no space for piety. At the end of this path, in the future of the country, the radical social components that have achieved military victory will emerge. If we observe the evolution of the situation in Syria from this point of view, it is easy to gather how the short term objective of the overthrowing of the regime goes to the detriment of what could happen in the near future. Another draw back of indirect support is that all those countries that have supported one of the two sides will end up being marginalized by those that have actually fought the war.
Syria's arsenal, chemical weapons included, is also worth a comment. During a civil war, whose final phases will be fragmented with sacks of resistance and clashes in urban centers, the control over delicate infrastructures (weapons, missiles and WMD depots) will not be guaranteed, nor can we know who will take over them. In the light of the Al Qaeda mujaheddins fighting in the ranks of the insurgents, such an issues becomes extremely relevant. The transhumance of international terrorists from one hot spot to the next has become an ordinary scenario. They are war professionals, experts in popular uprisings, without any ideological background except the religious one, they contribute to the destabilization.
Syria is to Russia what Israel is to the United States. Same support, equal strategic quotient, same determination to accept deeds and misdeeds. There is no room for an objective analysis of events. Strategic interests prevail over anything else. From this point of view it is unthinkable that Moscow will allow any UN resolution that could damage or be hostile to the regime in Damascus. If anything, Russia could accept an honorable exit of Assad from his country. But this option is hard to pursue because, as in Yemen through Saudi mediation, there is no regional actor that could assure the painless passing of the regime.
Turkey is the country the most involved in Syrian affairs. It supports the opposition, welcomes refugees, offers logistical support, allows the training of the guerrilla, provides weapons (or rather: it does not oppose the landing of weapon supplies to the rebels) and is strongly dedicated to intelligence gathering in tight collaboration with Western intelligence agencies. Turkish involvement has increased exponentially after the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syrian anti-craft.
Following Erdogan's pro-islamic foreign policy, Turkey has been cultivating strategic interests in the Arab world. From this perspective, the Syrian crisis provides a specific opportunity. Ankara's moderate view of islam is instrumental in strengthening Turkey's role in the Middle East. Through the events in Syria, the Turks are defending the interests of the Sunnis to the detriment of the Halawis and of their closest theological relatives, the Shiites.
But along the political gains, Ankara is also facing a series of risks: the instability in Syria can spill over into their country, a possible resurfacing of the Kurdish issue could find support in the Diaspora living in Syria whose ranks fight alongside Bashar al Assad. There is also another imminent threat and that is Iran's support to Syria, considered the only and irreplaceable ally in the region. Teheran is tied to Damascus by a military agreement and loosing Syrian support would make them feel isolated. They would also loose the territorial contiguity with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran's radical armed wing in their fight against Israel. And this is definitely a luxury Teheran cannot afford also given the incumbent threat of an Israeli attacks against its nuclear sites. Iran will do everything to stop the fall of Assad, including the use of all those forms of destabilization it is capable of: terrorism in all its forms, support to Shiite minorities in the Arabian peninsula, the Kurds.
There is yet another actor - currently silent - watching events in Damascus. It's Israel. To Tel Aviv, Bashar Assad is the lesser evil with respect to the threat of a fundamentalist regime replacing the Halawites. The idea of having Israel surrounded by islam fundamentalist regimes with a common hatred against the Jewish State are a non-desirable scenario. The gains Israel could obtain from interrupting the direct link between the Hezbollah and Teheran could backfire if the new fundamentalist regime in Damascus decided to support the Lebanese Shiites in their fight against the Israelis.
There is also a domestic threat to Tel Aviv: the Syrian Druzes that could reunite with the ones in Israel. The two communities that live across the Golan have strong ties. An increase in the Druze population living in Israel - whose national cohesion is based on theocratic parameters - is not seen with favor. Furthermore, the Syrian Druze community has been tightly linked to the Assad regime and could bring inside the Israeli territory a feeling of hostility against Tel Aviv.
Syrian rebels in action
The United States and Western powers are strongly in favor of a regime change in Damascus. Their reasoning is strictly pragmatic and not ideological or ethical. If the geo-strategic gains are immediate, a traumatic change in Syria could affect the balance of the entire region. When a political and/or military void is created, the balance is broken. A new one will come about through a lengthy and unstable process. It has already happened with the destruction of Saddam Hussein's military might. And it is not granted that the end result of the process will favor Western interests and/or the neo-ottoman aims of Ankara and/or Wahabi expansionism in Ryad.
Both in the Gulf and in the Middle East power is based on force. Authoritarian regimes prevail over democracy and consensus. The overthrow of the balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites will not automatically grant renewed stability in the region. Actually, the opposite is true if we put the clash on a theological level. If Wahabi Sunnis and their Saudi counterparts were to prevail this would mean greater religious fanaticism, less civil rights, less civil liberties and less religious freedom for those who dissent. We should not forget that Osama Bin Laden, Zahawiri, Hassan al Banna and Sayyed al Qubt have all based their ideas and behavior on Wahabi ideology. Lastly, we should ponder whether a fundamentalist religious regime is in any way better than a secular authoritarian one as the Syrian Baath is.
State of play
History teaches that when a regime's cruelty reaches the point of no-return and global public opinion becomes a hostile majority, the regime is set to fall. History will repeat with Bashar Assad. The only technical detail is whether his entourage will leave or be eliminated. In the Syrian case it is not clear how long it will take for this to happen.
Assad can still count on his army and his security services while the opposition, both political and armed is weak and divided. Russia and China have blocked all external military interventions and this has granted the Halawites and the other minorities supporting the regime to keep their strength. The more the civil war will advance, the greater will radicalism be. The lack of alternatives will lead to irreversible choices.
Currently the Syrian regime can count on the support of the most radical Palestinian factions, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Kurds, the Druzes, the Christians. This will last as long as relevant defections will not affect the regime and the deserters will not reach a tipping point. The generals that have fled thus far are not significant and cannot cause the fall of the regime.
Bashar's father, Hafez
When in June 2000 Hafez Assad died and power was handed over to his son Bashar. The event was marked by international media as one that would have lead to an improvement in Syria's autocratic regime. A young doctor, who had studied abroad and with little or no love for the military had been been chose to replace his father after the unpredicted death of his brother Basel. Bashar was the signal of a shy opening to democracy in a country that had been ruled until then with the iron glove. Predictions proved wrong. The legacy of power is also in the way it is kept.
Under several points of view, the Syrian question lies outside the clichés of the so called Arab Spring. This is because mainly external interests and relationships are at stake. They have taken over the legitimate will to prevail over an autocratic regime. It is not an hypothetic search for freedom or democracy of an oppressed people that is at stake. There is something bigger, more complex as are the strategic interests of the super-powers, the hegemonic aims of the countries in the region, theological disputes, power struggles, the radicalization of the fight against Israel, the Palestinian issue, the Kurdish problem, Jihadi terrorism, the role of Iran and the stability of the Arabian peninsula, the control of oil reserves. These are all elements that could prolong the agony of the Assad regime and, at the same time, trigger more crisis, more instability, more suffering.