Popular Uprising in Syria: Beware of the Henchmen from Within

Even though it faces a range of protests, Syria is unlikely to face popular-led regime change. Instead, unremitting instability and a standoff between protestors and the regime are more likely to follow leading to a combination of piecemeal reforms and more violence. However, internal challenges to the regime should not be ruled out.

By Reinoud Leenders for RUSI.org

While unprecedented mass protests are met with fierce regime repression throughout Syria, researchers and academics are frequently asked to comment on what they know least about: What will happen? The persistence of the media and others to raise this question, although understandable, is remarkable, if only because no Syria watchers had foreseen the current turmoil in the first place. However, the immediate future may not be fully unintelligible. Indeed, if the recent and more distant past may serve as a guide to the future - but not without failing to add a range of obligatory disclaimers - popular-led regime change in Syria still appears unlikely. Instead, unremitting instability and a standoff between protestors and the regime are more likely to follow, prompting a stalemate of forces and piecemeal reforms that are bound to be frustrating hopes for fundamental change and that most probably will invite more anger and more violence. Yet while in the next few months all eyes will be set on the enduring confrontations between the protestors and the regime, the main challenge may come from within the regime as, in Syria's past, heavy reliance on extra-judicial repression has had a tendency among security- and (para-) military forces to turn against the regime itself.

Since mid-March, and prompted by similarly unprecedented mass uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of ordinary Syrians have done the unthinkable: They angrily went into the streets, first calling for reform, but then increasingly demanding the overthrow of the regime and an end to forty-eight years of Ba'thist dictatorship. First depicted as localised rumblings of tribal frustration in Deraa, the protests expanded throughout the country and now include Homs, the country's third largest city, and even the outskirts of Damascus. Also the northeastern Kurdish regions now appear to join the protests in full force. The regime responded with violence, not hesitating to deploy tanks and snipers, and killing an estimated 750 civilians while arresting thousands. Mainly transmitted from Syria clandestinely via YouTube, the images of the protests and ruthless actions by the security forces are as impressive as they are shocking. Although impossible to check for their accuracy, they leave the impression that something or someone has to give in. For their part, the swelling numbers of demonstrators suggest that they are not volunteering in this respect. The regime, in turn, made promises of political reform that at other times would have stirred excitement. Yet demonstrators and ordinary Syrians alike know very well that their country's eternal 'reform' process, dating back to the Hafez al-Assad's 'corrective movement' in the early 1970s and revived and restyled by his son Bashar since 2000, is more likely to reconfigure and reinvigorate authoritarian rule and render it more resilient than to trigger meaningful change. Hence, the demonstrations continue.  

Why popular protest is not enough

Yet mass demonstrations, whatever their scale or intensity, are not sufficient to bring down the regime. Beyond the revolutionary romanticism emphasised in the Tunisian and Egyptian context, the recent and still incomplete transitions in these two countries appear to point up to two crucial and interrelated facilitating factors: The position of the armed forces and the ability of the protestors to get adequately organised in order to persuade army chiefs to back them or at the very least distance themselves from the regime and its main figureheads. These two factors are conspicuous in their absence in Syria, just as they still appear to be lacking in those other stalled or faltering transitions in the region, in Bahrain and Yemen.

Firstly, due to decades of harsh repression and ideological outbidding there appear to be no seriously organised or even marginally effective opposition forces in Syria. Thus, a recent attempt by opposition activists from within and outside Syria to publicly express their demands vis-à-vis the regime was riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies and other shortcomings, and failed to impress anyone, not even the protestors.[1] Popular responses formulated by hastily organised local gatherings, including in Deraa, have been much more articulate and consistent in effectuating their demands vis-à-vis the regime, but these fall short of a nation-wide platform.[2]

Meanwhile, some veteran opposition activists, such as Michel Kilo, continued to adhere to their mantra of reform or, as unassumingly expressed by the elderly Communist activist Riyyad at-Turk, they confessed to their incapacity to channel or lead the protests by the country's youth.[3] That may not affect the protests as such, but among other things it underscores a failure of the opposition to get inroads into the armed forces and, riding on the waves of popular mobilisation, to persuade officers and commanders to take positions favourable to regime change. The very fact that the petition of the 'National Initiative for Change' cited earlier publicly called on leading military figures to back the revolution only corroborates that the opposition failed to build discrete channels into the armed forces to convey exactly that message.

Second, Syria's armed forces are extremely unlikely to play an accommodating role. The troops of the 4th division and the Republican Guards, in combination with the security forces, are battle-tested and are fully loyal to the regime. They have a track record of being sent in to suppress dissent with no questions asked. Some in the regular armed forces may grumble, as suggested by unconfirmed reports on desertions and refusals to follow shooting orders. Yet given years of neglect these regular troops are no match to the special forces that are armed to the teeth and led by mainly 'Alawi officers including members of the extended Assad family. Predictions, or indeed threats enthusiastically propagated by the regime itself, that a post-regime era would be rife with Iraqi-style violence will gain currency mainly among these special troops themselves as they will fear popular retribution for their own current excesses of repression and indeed for those committed in the past.

More repression ahead

This is not to suggest that the regime will persist unchangeably. On the contrary, pressure for (undesirable) change may in this scenario come from the security- and special forces themselves. As Dankwart Rustow already observed in the early 1960s for the region at large, increased reliance of governments on military repression causes the army's skills in domestic coercion to be overdeveloped, which, in turn, renders such governments into a 'more vulnerable and tempting target' for military coups.[4] In Syria's past, moments of extraordinary repression often inflated the self-confidence of key agents of state violence, or they informed their urge to get rewarded, or they caused fears among the regime's henchmen to be sacrificed at a later stage when the regime tried to get back to its 'normal' business of authoritarian governance.

Whatever the exact nature of such motivations, internal coups and assaults on the regime occurred more than once under these conditions, most notably when in 1983 Rifa'at al-Assad staged his failed coup attempt following his prominent role in the violent clamp-down on Islamists between 1980-82, especially in Hama. Ironically, against this background the regime's recent decision to abolish the Higher State Security Court, once described by a Western diplomat as the 'processing centre' for the now equally scrapped emergency laws, may backfire in the sense that raw extra-judicial repression will proliferate with no bounds while its executors will rise in importance.

Concurrently, the regime's henchmen may want to be rewarded for defending the regime against the most serious challenge to its rule at least since the 1980s, or they may want to shield themselves against the regime's future attempts to get rid of its most unsavory elements now deemed unworthy of a 'reforming' regime. Those on the European Union's list of thirteen Syrian individuals believed to be leading Syria's current repression of the uprising, drawn up earlier this month in order to subject them to sanctions, should be carefully watched for their future moves.[5]

Reinoud Leenders is assistant professor in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and formerly with the International Crisis Group based in Beirut. He recently co-edited, with Steven Heydemann, Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance and Regime Resilience in Syrian and Iran (forthcoming). His personal website: http://home.medewerker.uva.nl/r.e.c.leenders/ 


[1] See: Reinoud Leenders, 'The Syrian Opposition's "National Initiative for Change": A Missed Opportunity', MRZine, 1 May 2011. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/leenders010511.html

[2] See: 'Statement of the Syrian Local Coordinating Committees', 22 April 2011. At http://syrianrevolutiondigest.blogspot.com/2011/04/backlash-to-bloodshed.html

[3] See resp. Kilo's op-ed in As-Safir, 16 April 2011 and At-Turk's op-ed reproduced in Akhbar as-Sharq, 12 March 2011.

[4] Rustow, Dankwart A., 'The Military in Middle Eastern Society and Politics', Sydney N. Fisher (ed), The Military in the Middle East: Problems in Society and Government, (Ohio State University Press, Columbus: 1963), 11-12.

[5] 'Thirteen Named on Syrian Sanctions List', Al-Jazeera, 10 May 2011. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/05/20115109716137121.html  


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