Syria: Past the Point of No Return?

This article was originally published by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

By attacking and arresting its own citizens by the thousands, has the Syrian government discredited itself beyond redemption?

Syrian opposition representatives—Najib Ghadbian, Ausama Monajed, and Radwan Ziadeh—fresh from conferences in Turkey and Belgium, were in London this week to advocate for a more meaningful international response to escalating violence in the country. Asked if the regime has passed the point of no return, their answer was an emphatic affirmative. Observers and analysts abroad are not so readily convinced, as became apparent yesterday during the delegation’s visit to European Council on Foreign Relations for a policy roundtable to discuss Syria’s future.

The Syrian opposition, though formally leaderless, is educated, informed and comprised of activists and intellectuals who have devoted their lives to reform and change in their homeland. Their organizing meetings in Antalya and Brussels earlier this month led to the establishment of elected executive councils that will continue to act and speak for the various strands of the opposition within and beyond Syria. They are also articulating a smart but ambitions strategy to prevent a Syrian civil war, but will need to present themselves more effectively to their international interlocutors and demonstrate in more visible ways their cooperation with the domestic opposition. Simply having a secretariat with official spokespersons, strategists and lobbyists would take them a long way towards this purpose.

The uncertainty hanging over Syria comes not from the fog of war in Libya—where, though Qaddafi is holding on, he is likely to be unseated—but from Iran. The most chilling frost on the buds of the Arab Spring comes in the knowledge that the Iranian government, almost two years ago to the day, launched a vicious crackdown against the opposition Green Movement, killing, torturing and arresting scores of their citizens engaged in peaceful protests with impunity. Iran stands as a stark counterpoint to the optimism of the Arab spring: literally killing off dissent can and does allow a regime to survive.

Though the Assad regime is taking its murderous tactics directly from the Iranian playbook, the Syrian opposition-in-exile asserts that they and their counterparts in the popular protest movements across the country can envision no future for Syria that includes Assad and his cronies. The regime’s repression in the last two months, they say, has been like oil on fire, with protests gathering size and fury with each passing week and present in the major urban centers of Aleppo and Damascus.

Despite their authenticity, independence from the traditional opposition and a clear demand that that Assad must go, the protest movement within Syria is at a distinct disadvantage. Unlike their Tunisian and Egyptian co-revolutionaries, Syria’s opposition lacks the social networking and organizing tools that enabled and accelerated those revolutions. Despite the steady and shocking accounts, images and videos provided through citizen journalism, media access to Syria remains restricted and so the uprisings lack context to an audience. And even the simplest accidents of urban planning are working against the protestors—the ability to claim a large, symbolic public space to sustain the force and size of protests, as happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, is not possible in Syria (not to mention that Syrian security forces have preemptively set up checkpoints and snipers in all major towns and cities).

What would an Assad exit look like? In the first instance, the opposition advocates that international pressure and sanction should focus on the inner circle of the regime—that is, on Bashar al-Assad, Maher al-Assad (Commander of the Republican Guard and the powerful 4th Armored Division, and de facto military chief), Assef Shawkat (deputy Chief of Staff of the Army), business magnate Rami Makhlouf and the other core ideologues and proponents of violence that are protecting the regime. The narrow focus on the core of the regime is essential in diminishing fears of retribution demonstrating to the Alevi community that they have a future in a new Syria. The second tactic of an isolationist strategy is to allow, and perhaps deploy the threat of future sanctions more smartly, to encourage senior military defections. A third prong would include sustaining pressure on rich neighbors in the Gulf not to bail out what is an increasingly damaged Syrian economy. And a last option, though underexplored, is the possibility of pursuing referral of the regime’s core figures to the International Criminal Court for what Human Rights Watch has cited as crimes against humanity.

The open secret is that leverage over the Assad regime is limited. What political capital and goodwill nations like Turkey and France had with the Syrian government is spent, and yet the Syrian government does care about its perceived standing in the international community. With sustained pressure from inside through a peaceful protest movement, which is showing no signs of slowing down, and condemnation and sanction from outside, Syrian army officials would find it easier protect their legacy and stature in a post-Assad Syria.

As one speaker said, the Syrian army, the 16th largest in the world, has been built up for 48 years to confront this day. Bashar al-Assad may yet find it possible to kill his way out of this revolution, and it is possible that the international community may accept their relative impotence as he does it. But the opposition has, for the time being, shown vigor and vision in the face of a crisis that will redefine their nation, and they will need all the diplomatic help and muscle they can get. Turkey, the Arab league and key European states should make clear that Assad has lost legitimacy.

Syria’s post-Assad future will likely materialize in one of two ways: a transfer of power to a military caretaker government to allow for a political transition to democracy, or a perpetuation of violence that militarizes the population and feeds a prolonged civil conflict. In other words, is Syria headed for a turn in the road or off a cliff?

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