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Region | Syrian Ceasefire Takes Effect, But Violence Unlikely to End


14 Apr 2012 04:26Comments

Unmonitored aftermath poses new perils to opposition.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a fellow at Truthout, an independent online magazine.
0305-syria-uprising_full_600.jpg[ analysis ] At 6 a.m. local time Thursday, the Syrian Army and main anti-regime armed organizations began observing the terms of a ceasefire negotiated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, reportedly after Russia and Iran, fearing the loss of a valuable proxy in Damascus, pressured Assad to accept the agreement. The U.S. government, as well as most Syrian opposition groups, have doubts that the ceasefire will hold -- though so far no major military actions have been observed -- because the Syrian government refused to withdraw its forces from contested urban areas on Tuesday per the terms of the agreement, and it still hasn't. Heavy bombardment continued up until the deadline, with the Syrian Foreign Ministry haughtily asserting that it had achieved decisive military victories and would thus wind down its operations across the country. The Obama administration and top NATO officials in public remain unsupportive of direct Western military action in Syria, though there is a growing lobby in Washington in favor of arming the rebels.

The Syrian blogger Maysaloon (a pseudonym) notes in a commentary -- with the grimly understated title of "Clarifications" -- that Assad's stance essentially requires all armed groups except those under his control to lay down their arms, a measure that could leave the opposition collectively open to a massacre like the 1982 Siege of Hama. On the other side of this nascent civil war, it is unlikely that Syrian military defectors or pro-Assad militias would permanently lay down their arms at the U.N.'s urging, for fear of being targeted by insurgents (sectarian killings by anti-regime militias have been reported by multiple journalists working in Syria). Jadaliyya's Bassam Haddad writes,

Like those that preceded it, this truce will not be honored. From the perspective of the regime, it does not feel (yet) that it has to abide by a mechanism that normalizes the current status quo, or by any mechanism that does not restore the status quo ante.... It is also not a puzzle that the Syrian regime, historically and now, is ultimately responsible for all this, no matter how "un-pure" the uprising and the players involved have become (domestically and externally).

Despite the fact that demonstrations against Assad's regime continue, even in the heart of Damascus, most of the opposition strongholds in Syrian cities have been severely battered and cordoned off by the Syrian Army. Anti-regime militia members report that procurement efforts -- from sellers as diverse as Syrian expats in the E.U. to corrupt Syrian Army quartermasters -- have not assured them of a sure supply of material. A stream of refugees has fled into Turkey and Jordan, among other states. And while a new unity agreement among the militias was reached in March, which along with plans by the Saudi Defense Ministry to fund the militias may produce a "united" armed opposition, the official U.S. and U.N. policy is still to reach a negotiated solution where all armed forces lay down their arms.

The new unity agreement among the militias was reached in March, just ahead of a conference among opposition groups held in Istanbul. Given the Turks' role in calling for sanctions against Assad, the hints they dropped about "safe zones" for refugees and taking "necessary steps" if the ceasefire fails, and their warnings to Assad concerning his alleged support for the PKK, it seems that Ankara has spent much time trying to get out in front of a more unified anti-regime movement. This would benefit the overseas opposition because the Syrian regime's armed strength still outweighs that of the anti-regime militias and the defectors in the "Free Syrian Army," whose command said it would observe the ceasefire so long as the regular Syrian Army upheld its end of the deal.

Should hostilities resume, almost any military solution in favor of the opposition would require, at minimum, extensive intelligence, logistic, and fire support from Turkey to negate the regime's advantages on the field. Even a more "limited" engagement plan, such as that urged by "responsibility to protect" advocates, would require these commitments, which blur the lines between defensive action and providing fire support to the rebels. American officials, like the Turks, have become more hawkish on the matter, as have several Arab League members. However, Russia and Iran (which CENTCOM says is arming and advising Assad's forces) are unlikely to back away from their ally should fighting resume.

Further regional escalation remains possible. In Lebanon, where the Alawite and Sunni militias based in Tripoli are taking sides in the conflict across the border, Hanna Ziadeh warns that "the depressing aspect is that the Arab Spring is increasingly becoming a regional supra-national (between states) and intra-national (within states) war between Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and Shiites led by Iran."

While the Syrian Army cannot truly be trusted to hold to the ceasefire, there is a real danger of provocation from the armed opposition. Despite intimations from some sources that the "Free Syrian Army" is a united fighting force, the Turkish-based "command" may exercise little control over all its "units."

Critics assert that arming the militias will be the quickest route to the "Lebanonization" of Syria, threatening the security of neighboring countries and inflaming the region to such a degree that the foreign military intervention people hoped proxy engagement would make unnecessary will become a reality. The optimistic view that arming the opposition will lead to the coalescence of a more unified resistance responsive to Western advice ought to be tempered -- it certainly did not happen when the United States and its allies pursued a policy of providing extensive humanitarian, intelligence, and military aid to to the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War.

Moreover, these anti-regime militias are not the only paramilitary forces active in Syria. Assad can count on Alawite militias -- pejoratively referred to as the "shabiha" -- to keep supporting his crackdown. If the Syrian Army crumbles, one can easily imagine that many fearful Alawite officers and specialists will, as their Baathist opposites did in Iraq, take their arms and experience to reinforce these pro-regime militias, not least because some anti-Assad militias have reportedly decided to summarily execute any "shabiha" they capture. According to Human Rights Watch (as well as a leaked Arab League report), the militias are committing human rights violations too -- though in the rights group's report, Assad's forces are attributed responsibility for the majority of human rights violations, including committing torture in hospitals, mining the Syrian border, killing refugees, and indiscriminately shelling residential areas.

Without international monitoring -- backed up by the implicit readiness to use force -- of the steps that follow the ceasefire's zero hour, it is difficult to imagine that Assad and his army, militias, and secret police will not, as the opposition Syrian National Council argues, try to move quietly to strike down dissidents. A ceasefire not carefully watched actually offers them a window of opportunity to start moving against activists and whole communities. Even if the large-scale fighting ends, the killing and destabilization of Syria will not.

Are there members of the security apparatus in Damascus who could be counted on to not just maintain the ceasefire, but shepherd a political transition along as well? What the opposition needs if the ceasefire holds is for someone to take Assad's place, a leader who'd be willing to deal with both the armed and unarmed opposition and be accepted by them and his own people in the regime as a broker. The Center for a New American Security advises that "U.S. policy should instead focus on engaging in a sustained and targeted campaign of pressure against the As[s]ad regime with the end goal of bringing key components of the ruling coalition to the negotiating table to devise a post-As[s]ad political path forward." But who will come together on all sides -- the opposition, as in Libya, is by no means a unified governing or fighting force -- to lead a transition?

The Syrian opposition will have a tough time uniting, but group have emerged both outside and within Syria -- the Syrian National Council and the Homs coordinating committees, respectively -- who could come together to form a united front. It is not nearly so easy to determine who would be standing opposite them on behalf of the Alawites who dominate the security forces.

Yes, the Baathists, and the Assad family, have turned on themselves before. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, came to power in the "Corrective Revolution," a 1970 coup. Hafez's brother, Rifaat al-Assad, who played a role in the coup, was eventually forced into exile. By the 1980s, Hafez had come to see Rifaat as a rival for the presidency since he commanded the regular Syrian Army and the paramilitary "Defense Companies" that played a role in the coup and the brutal 1976-1982 campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. The "Defense Companies" were merged into the Syrian Fourth Armored Division as Rifaat fell out of favor, and this "elite" division is now under the command of Bashar al-Assad's younger brother, Maher, who also heads the Syrian Army's Republican Guards Division.

But Maher and his officers in those divisions have too much blood on their hands to make them acceptable choices for anyone but the most hardline regime loyalists. So could Syrian officials, particularly other Alawites outside the Assad family, be convinced that to preserve their power and the sanctity of their military command, they ought to negotiate a ceasefire? The Alawite community is not a monolith, but it is frightened at the prospect of losing its privileges and being attacked by the opposition. If the Syrian Army is in as dire straits as some say -- most Syrian observers agree it has paid a heavy price in its conflict with the anti-regime fighters; perhaps a quarter of the reported dead are soldiers killed in combat -- its officer corps may have a more realistic appraisal of their soldiers' willingness to keep fighting than do Assad's relations.

Syrian Army defector Brigadier General Mustafa Ahmad al-Sheikh, told the Telegraph that the regime can rely on "only about 40 percent of its hardware and 32 percent of its human personnel" at this stage, and that its forces have been decimated by a purge aimed at weeding out via incarceration or execution "suspect" Sunni officers. But even banking on the idea that a high-ranking defector will emerge runs risks because any such figure would almost be certainly greeted with skepticism by the armed opposition and the Syrian security apparatus alike, and would likely be unable to satisfy holdouts in either camp. Analyst Mona Yacoubian told AOL News, "it's a real long shot" that Syria's allies can exert pressure on the security apparatus to stage a coup.

Yet looking further ahead, it will be necessary for the opposition movement to co-opt non-Sunni military members into a national coalition. As Asli U. Bali and Aziz F. Rana wrote in the New York Times, "further isolation tells the Assad government and its social constituencies that their only options are victory through mass violence or annihilation." Why is military co-optation so crucial? Consider what happened next door in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's army was dissolved. Unemployed military personnel had the potential to wreak havoc in post-Saddam Iraq, and they did just that absent any unified command structure to effectively supervise their disarmament. This is the greatest danger to Syria's immediate post-Assad future: that when Assad goes, many of his well-armed supporters and dependents will not accept a negotiated solution, but rather carry out attacks that will draw armed Islamist groups deeper into the conflict.

Nir Rosen, back from several months spent inside Syria with opposition groups, notes that among jihadists "Sham" -- their name for a Syrian theater of operations -- is a tempting prize, and it's apparent that such fighters are already involved in the fighting, though they may just be capitalizing on the al-Qaeda name. And neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran can be expected to simply abandon those who've proven useful for them: the Saudis amply demonstrated this in Afghanistan during the 1990s; Iran continues to demonstrate it in Iraq today. They would strive to outmaneuver each other at Syrians' expense. And so too would the Russians, the Americans, the E.U., and the Turks.

To return to Maysaloon:

Maybe at some point, and probably after many more deaths, there might be enough internal pressure on Assad to finally sit [at] the table and take his country seriously for a change.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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