Michael M. Gunter – Dept. of Political Science – Tennessee Technological University – Remarks prepared for the Seminar on “Democratization in Syria, Perspectives and Prospects, Syria and Kurds at the Crossroads of Change,” California State University at Long Beach, CA, October 6, 2012

The Syrian uprising that has been raging, growing, and morphing since it broke out in the southern city of Dara in March 2011, has enormous internal, regional, and international implications. Unlike Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad  still has powerful friends in Iran, Russia, China, Iraq (but not the KRG!), and even Hezbollah in Lebanon to fall back upon.  Thus, the United States, Turkey France, and their NATO allies along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now locked in proxy struggles with Assad’s friends over the future of Syria. For the time being, the result appears to be a stalemate. There are many different dimensions to this situation and any attempt to sort them out can quickly become confusing. This brief analysis will attempt to deal with some aspects of this situation.

Islam’s ancient Sunni-Shiite divide has partially manifested itself in the current Syrian civil war. Shiite Iran and Iraq support the current president of Syria Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite,  which is an extremist version of Shiism. On the other hand, Sunni Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar back Assad’s enemies. This Sunni-Shiite explanation for the struggle, of course, is only partially valid because some Sunni elements in Syria still support the Assad regime, while some Alawites back the opposition. Nevertheless, not only does the Alawite minority largely support the regime, but so do other minorities such as the various Christian sects and Druze.

The Kurds  long sat on the side and thus tacitly seemed to be supportive of the regime. However, recently the Kurds in Syria claim to have joined the opposition. Nevertheless, the Kurds are not so much part of the opposition as they are not supporting the regime. Rather for the time being at least the Kurds seem to be simply enjoying some autonomy from both the regime and its opposition. However, whoever eventually emerges victoriously in Syria will probably seek to reduce the Kurds again.

The failure of the NATO West to agree with its former Cold War adversaries Russia and China has been mirrored in the failure of the United Nations Security Council to agree. As a result, first former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and now famed UN and Arab mediator Lakhdar Brahimi have failed to reach some kind of cease-fire in this bloody quagmire.

Through all this the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq clearly supports the opposition. Indeed, in July 2012, KRG president Massoud Barzani called the many different Syrian Kurdish parties to Irbil and pressured them to unite in opposition against the Assad regime and for the over-all benefit of the Kurds. However, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) Syrian affiliate Democrat Union Party (PYD) has long seemed at least benevolently neutral in favor of the Assad regime. The PKK also seems to be giving tacit support to Assad as a way to return to Syria from where it was expelled in 1998.

Continuing strong opposition against Turkey, who supports the opposition, also strongly motivates the PYD and PKK in their seeming tacit support of Assad or at least hesitancy to come out firmly against him. Thus the Kurdish National Council (KNC) in Syria of at least 12 to 15 weak opposition Kurdish parties is being supported by the KRG to support the opposition, while the strongest Kurdish group in Syria, the PYD, still takes a less antagonistic stance against the regime. Nevertheless, both Kurdish groups now supposedly cooperate as the Supreme Kurdish Council since Barzani brought them together in Irbil in July 2012.

In July 2012, the Assad regime suddenly pulled most of its troops and authority out of the Kurdish regions of northeastern Syria, which lie just below Turkey’s southern border, to concentrate on holding its position in the heartland of the country. The resulting Syrian Kurdish autonomy is causing great apprehension in Turkey because Ankara fears that this newly-won Kurdish Syrian position will serve as an unwanted model for Turkey’s own disaffected Kurds and PKK. Turkey also fears that the Syrian Kurdish autonomous area bordering the KRG may seek to unite with the KRG and form for Turkey the nightmare of a pan-Kurdish state that would serve all the more as a magnet for Turkey’s disaffected Kurds. Turkey hopes that its influence over the Syrian opposition and the KRG will help to control pan-Kurdish ambitions.

What is more the supposedly settled but still present divide between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan PUK)—the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties—seems to be reflected by Jalal Talabani, still the PUK leader and also the president of Iraq, being less supportive of the Syrian opposition than is the KDP leader and KRG president, Massoud Barzani. All this of course can be most confusing because the position of each party is more nuanced than just being for or against Assad.

Yet another dimension to the Syrian crisis is the divisions within the opposition itself. The supposed main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed in August 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey where it is still based. It is supported by the Friends of Syria group consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, and France, among many others. However, despite its efforts to form a transitional government, the SNC remains largely irrelevant. Following an opposition conference in Cairo in July 2012, for example, Al Arabiya News concluded that its various components “are so different, chaotic and hate each other.”  Thus, an astute divide-and-rule strategy on the part of the Assad regime against its internal opposition would offer it a viable survival strategy.

The Sunni Arab-dominated Syrian opposition of secular and Islamic militias is loosely organized militarily as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was officially created on July 29, 2011, has at least 10 military councils scattered throughout Syria, and consists of maybe 20,000 to 100,000 defectors from the Syrian army. Compared to the regime’s forces, the FSA is lightly armed with AK-47s and RPGs, and thus largely employs guerrilla tactics. Its leader, based in Turkey, was Colonel Riad al-Assad, whose surname, although actually different, is ironically spelled the same way in English as his enemy, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. However, Riad Assad is fast becoming irrelevant, while Brigadier General Mustafa al-Shaikh, the head of the High Military Council that handles the FSA’s strategic planning and arms procurement, is emerging as the main military leader.

A de facto command center operating out of Istanbul distributes military supplies sent from Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the help of Turkish intelligence to the FSA. In addition, Riad Assad and Mustafa Sheikh also transfer money and weapons independently to selected FSA units. These supplies probably come from defectors, raids on government caches, purchases on the black market, and arms smuggling. 

The Muslim Brotherhood  apparently is the strongest part of the Islamic opposition and is seeking to become the umbrella organization for all the other Islamic groups that are involved. As an Arab-based group, the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, is no friend of future Kurdish rights in post-Assad Syria. No wonder the Syrian Kurds are hesitant about fully supporting an opposition that might be less friendly than the current Assad regime, which despite its past hostility to Kurdish rights has made many concessions to the Kurds since the current civil war broke out.

Illustrative of Kurdish suspicions about the opposition, on July 2, 2012, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) briefly walked out of a meeting of Syrian opposition groups being held in Cairo in an argument over the future Kurdish role in an Arab Syria. Moreover, what kind of democracy is the opposition, when the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) garners most of its support from the likes of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar? In addition, clearly non-democratic elements from outside have journeyed to Syria to join the multi-faceted opposition including Jahadists, Salafists, and al-Qaeda elements. At the end of September 2012, demonstrations broke out in more than 370 locations throughout Syria demanding greater unity within the opposition.

The Syrian crisis has also led to a potentially destabilizing refugee crisis in Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, the states immediately bordering Syria. Turkey especially seems fearful of what a large influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees might ignite among Turkey’s own disaffected Kurds. Even more, as noted already, the de facto Syrian Kurdish autonomy since July 2012 offers the Kurds in Turkey just to the north what to Turkey is an unwanted autonomous model. Although the fledgling Turkish-KRG alliance might be able to control these problems, it also is challenged by them. While on the subject of international refugees, one should also mention the burgeoning problem of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Syria.

What about the United States in all this? By not intervening more strongly in the Syrian crisis, the United States and its NATO allies (minus heavily involved Turkey) risk alienating or losing the Syrian opposition. On the other hand, of course, what support the United States has given to the opposition has alienated Assad. In addition, the virtual U.S. absence makes Islamic extremists become more likely to prevail in Syria if the opposition eventually wins. However, if the United States does intervene more strongly, it also risks all kinds of problems such as getting bogged down in yet another interminable war.

On September 28, 2012, U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton did tell the 90 odd governments who are members of the Friends of Syria group mentioned above, that her country is concentrating on efforts to increase humanitarian assistance and would donate an additional $30 million in aid to purchase food, water, blankets, and medical services, thus bringing the total U.S. support to $130 million. However, Clinton also made it clear that the United States would not provide weapons or any other military aid. 

Despite this tepid U.S. support for the opposition, I suspect that behind the scenes the United States is more involved, but only time will reveal to what extent. In July 2012, for example, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), an NGO based in Washington, D.C. and composed of Syrian exiles working with Brian Sayers, a former NATO political officer, received clearance from the U.S. Treasury Department to fund logistical and financial support to the FSA.  Financed by the U.S. State Department, The Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS) supposedly serves “as a training facility, coordination center, and point of contact for the international community with opposition networks inside Syria.”  It “is staffed by Syrian activists who maintain extensive relationships with opposition councils and civil society organizations inside the country.” Supposedly the OSOS “will serve as a clearinghouse for information on the opposition and its needs, build the capacity of opposition groups and activists and facilitate the distribution of assistance into Syria.” Recently, the OSOS opened an office in Istanbul.

In addition, the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX) is currently establishing the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center to manage the challenges of transitional justice in Syria by facilitating the transfer of communications equipment into Syria, among other projects. Experts from the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C. are working to fund an office for a Syrian NGO called The Day After to train Syrian activists on the problems that will arise in the post-Assad era.   More overt U.S. backing such as a no-fly zone or humanitarian corridors, however, has not been implemented. The threat that Assad might use his relatively large arsenal of chemical weapons or worse that they might fall into the hands of Hezbollah to use against Israel might help convince the United States to reverse its present stance against more robust intervention.

What about neighboring Israel and Lebanon? So far, Israel has held back, pleased perhaps in the short-run at its longtime enemy Syria’s self-destruction, but apprehensive for the long-term about what might eventually replace what is at least the devil it knows in Assad. Although several hundred Lebanese have joined the FSA,  the gallows humor is that Lebanon already has a bye into the final round of struggle.

Despite all these international implications, a detailed recent report by the International Crisis Group concluded that “the heart of a struggle variously described, with some justification, as a new cold war between the U.S., Russia and other emerging powers or as a region-wide sectarian battle has been and remains its domestic dimension.”   Syria has become a failed state in which militias, organized gangs of mercenaries and criminals called shabbiha, and warlordism prevail. The remains of the Assad regime face, looting, kidnapping for ransom, carjacking, smuggling, unprecedented corruption, and impending financial insolvency. Its supposed ruling Baath Party is moribund.

In conclusion, the Syrian crisis presents all with a sea of dangerous troubles. What can be done? One possible solution would be to offer Assad a safe house somewhere and immunity if he agrees to abdicate. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Muammar Qaddafi was smart enough to take up such an offer and both paid for their refusal with their lives. Supposedly, Bashar Assad is more astute and at some point might be willing to leave. A precedent already exists as the United States successfully gave General Raoul Cedras, the Haitian military dictator this option in 1994. However human rights advocates would likely oppose such a solution and even if still implemented the fall of Assad would not necessarily lead to peace in Syria as witness what happened in Libya and especially Iraq after their dictators fell.