Analysis |

The Assad Family Against Everyone Else

The Syrian regime's war is no longer a conflict between Alawites and Sunnis, it is becoming a war waged by the ruling clan against the rest of the country.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The defections by Syrian Vice President Farouk Sharaa – which Sharaa himself has not yet confirmed, and which was denied by the Syrian regime – and by Prime Minister Riad Hijab, as well as by Syrian army generals, will not put an end to the war and will not convince Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish power. Nor will the killing of four top military commanders and thousands of soldiers since the beginning of the rebellion.

These senior officials and commanders are immediately replaced with other "senior" figures who know the situation and can continue to command Syrian forces. Thus, the ruling pyramid is being reduced to a group made up of members of a single family.

Some of the deserters join the ranks of the opposition and take on active roles, as did General Manaf Tlas, son of a former Syrian defense minister, who is exhausting political efforts outside Syria in attempt to unify the rebel forces, or General Mustafa al-Sheikh, who formed his own military force operating aside Colonel Riad al-Asaad, commander of the Free Syria Army. Others find comfortable havens in Arab or European countries, opting not to join operations on the ground.

The defections by high ranking officials hold a significant moral importance since they make Bashar Assad look like a leader who no longer represents the Syrian "people" and the state. His war is no longer even that of Alawites against Sunnis, but of the Assad family against everyone else. Still, it is doubtful that a lack of legitimacy is something that troubles Assad, the leader of an illegitimate minority regime.

The important question is whether Assad himself has reached the conclusion that the time has come to offer his own realistic solution for the transferring of power. With little international pressure or threats of attack and the continued support of China and Russia, Assad supposedly has no political reason to put a stop to the massacres.

However, waging a war for 18 months exacts a heavy economic burden, one which Assad cannot bear without massive external Iranian, and primarily Russian, financial support.

Syria's foreign exchange reserves have dropped to $8 billion compared to $17 billion a year ago, and according to the Institute of International Finance the reserves are expected to plunge to a little over $1 billion by the end of 2012, a sum only sufficient for about two weeks of imports.

Syria's oil exports, valued at $400 million a month, are shrinking due to the sanctions imposed on the country, as is its ability to buy vital imported goods such as diesel, which is used to move the army's tanks.

Today, the Syrian government is conducting its financial affairs in Russian banks and through mainly Russian straw companies, which opened their branches in the United Arab Emirates. The IIF estimates that some $10 billion found its way out of Syria through businessmen and other individuals. Meanwhile, agriculture and tourism have suffered a severe blow and the value of the Syrian pound has plunged between 40 to 80 percent.

This economic threat, which can result in a gas shortage for Syrian tanks and fighter jets, prompted Syria's Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Kadri Jamil to travel to Russia, along with National Reconciliation Minsiter Ali Heydar, to seek a political solution for the financial crisis.

The purpose of the visit, where the Syrian delegation will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is to "offer solutions for the Syrian crisis through a national political dialogue," based on former UN envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, said Heydar.

The Syrian minister did not elaborate on what these solutions might be and how they will differ from those already offered by Syria, and rejected by the opposition, in the past. But Russia might now promote a political solution, taking advantage of the new appointment of Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as the new UN envoy, in Annan's place.

The 78-year-old Brahimi has performed diplomatic "miracles" in the past. He skillfully conducted the negotiations between rival factions in Lebanon in 1989, and succeeded – along with Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria – in ending the 15-year civil war with the historic Taif Accord, which formed a new balance of power in the country.

During the negotiations in Lebanon, Brahimi spent many hours with Assad and the Syrian regime and he is familiar with their methods and thinking. Twelve years later, Brahimi was successful in formulating an agreement between rival factions in Afghanistan and establishing a temporary government, headed by President Hamid Karzai.

Past events cannot be seen as a guarantee of success in the Syrian crisis, a fact which Brahimi is surely aware of following his bitter experience in Iraq. However, it is estimated that Brahimi only accepted the role after talking with Assad, as well as the Russian, Saudi, and Iranian leaderships, and received a promise that they would support his efforts.

The appointment of a new mediator could be used by Russia to advance a new strategy in solving the crisis and to restore the prestige it lost, especially among the Arab states, and to portray itself as the rescuer of a self-destructive Syria and of the powerless international community.

At the moment, the Syrian opposition has no choice but to accept the new initiative, even if it doubts that Brahimi will be able to remove Assad from power, since despite its achievements, it has been unable to win the war. The opposition's leadership cannot risk losing international support and thwart Brahimi's mission after the Syrian government was seen as responsible for Annan's failure.

Not only Assad has an interest in a new political solution. Iran and Hezbollah fear the Syrian crisis would spread to Lebanon and Iraq, and that Hezbollah could lose control over independent families and clans in Lebanon - important Shi'ite families in the Beqaa Valley who are conducting their own battles against the Free Syrian Army and against Syrian refugees, in attempt to retrieve the abducted Lebanese nationals.

Iran is concerned about the renewed activities of al-Qaida in Iraq, which in recent days has resulted in the killing of more than 200 people and in the outbreaks of ethnic violence.

Turkey is also being dragged into the Syrian crisis after two of its nationals were kidnapped by the al-Mokdad clan in Lebanon. Meanwhile, 2,000 Syrian refugees are fleeing to Turkey every day.

At the same time, Turkey is watching activists of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) settling along the Turkish-Syrian border. The PKK is considered a strategic threat by Ankara. Until the uprising, Assad cooperated with Turkey in dealing with this threat. Now, he is using it against Turkey.

The question of when a crisis reaches the point where it is ready for a solution cannot be answered decisively. While events on the ground may be grounds for a solution, it is not logic alone that is guiding the two sides. In fact, it would be correct to say that, in civil wars, the influence of logic is usually minimal.

Syrian opposition fighters take part in battles against Syrian government forces in the Karm al-Tarab neighborhood of Aleppo, August 17, 2012. Credit: AFP
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi.Credit: Reuters



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