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Middle east

Six months into uprising, Syria at 'point of no return'

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2011-09-15

Six months after the start of anti-government protests in Syria, French historian and Syrian specialist Frédéric Pichon and Oxford scholar Eugene Rogan share their views on the future of the crisis-hit country.

FRANCE 24: What is the situation in Syria six months after the start of the conflict?

Eugene Rogan: The situation is becoming increasingly tense for the government of Bashar al-Assad. He retains power despite the protesters, but the violence he has used against them cannot continue. Assad has ruled by fear, but it is now clear that Syrians are not scared. The UN says 2,600 people have died [since the protests began]. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, and are often physically and psychologically tortured in jail. But Syrians continue to protest and the movement has spread to smaller cities. Clearly fear no longer works. This marks a real change: even eight months ago, nobody would have imagined it.

Frédéric Pichon: I think we are in a state of quasi-civil war, or civil war waiting to happen. The anti-government movement is not just peaceful demonstrators. When the regime mobilises tanks and navy ships, it’s not to quell demonstrators, but to fight armed groups. Many researchers think they are Islamists who seek to attack the Alawite rulers [The Assad family comes from the religious Alawite minority]. Two months ago, a Saudi preacher called on Sunnis to attack Syrian Alawite villages and rape young women there... we should not ignore this religious aspect of the Syrian conflict. We are on the verge of civil war. Clearly, everything started in Deraa, a Sunni city. The Sunnis have been the most excluded group during the regime’s 40 years in power -- even though a Sunni bourgeoisie has emerged over the past decade.

F24: But the regime of Bashar al-Assad remains intact.

E.R.: Yes, but I think it will collapse due to two weaknesses. First the army. It is not certain at all that the army still supports the regime. The government, it seems, only calls on its fourth brigade to crack down on protesters. This brigade, the best equipped of the Syrian army, is particularly looked after by the authorities. It is headed by Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, and is mostly made up of Alawites. The other regiments of the army are majority Sunni, like the rest of Syria.

The other weakness of the Assad regime is the middle class, which has little money. They have been hit hard economically because of Syria’s isolation [in some cities, many shops have closed for lack of goods]. Little by little, the middle class is withdrawing its support for Assad. And this is a necessary base of the Assad regime. Without the middle class, it loses its anchor in Syria’s economy.

F.P.: Militarily, the regime is superior to the insurgents. And the international community does not intend to intervene. The Syrian regime is trying to tire out the revolt. Assad’s original strategy remains the same: in short, to say "without me, it will be chaos". Damascus insists an authoritarian and secular regime is needed to avoid sectarian violence. This risk is real. And although the revolt has allowed an opposition to emerge, there is still no credible and democratic alternative to Assad’s regime.

At the same time, I think the point of no return has been reached. The regime has conceded on major issues. The state of emergency [in place for over 48 years] was lifted in April, at the beginning of the conflict. And a multi-party system was announced in the spring. Today, Syrians have found a voice.

F24: What role can the international community play now that the front in Libya has quieted down?

E.R.: The West can’t do much. The resolutions and declarations, these are just words with little consequence.

Even before protests erupted, Syria had few links with the United States, Britain, France, and the West in general. These countries do not intend to intervene in Syria, especially since the intervention in Libya lasted much longer than expected and turned off a few NATO members.

However, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and of course Iran remain very important countries for Damascus. And they have gradually moved away from Assad. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have recalled their ambassadors, Turkey has condemned the use of violence against demonstrators and even Iran has distanced itself from Assad, who is increasingly isolated internationally.

F.P.: In general, what we saw at the beginning of the revolt has not changed. None of Syria’s neighbours -- nor any of the world powers -- want to risk destabilizing Syria. The disaster scenarios are many: instability on the Israeli-Syrian border, violence across the Kurdish regions that border Turkey and Iraq, a repeat of the situation in Iraq, or Lebanon's Hezbollah [a militant Shiite movement], which deprived of its patron, starts attacking everyone around it.

The international community has no interest in intervening, especially since there would be no return on investment. A war is expensive, and in Syria there is not that much oil.

F24: In your opinion, how will the situation end?

E.R.: In my opinion, Assad’s government will fall. I see no other way out. His fall may take months, perhaps years. The protests, uprisings and repression can still last a long time. As long as the army does not truly split with the regime, or if entire regions of the country do not rise up in revolt, things will not change. But I think we are approaching the breaking point. The government's position is weakening day by day.

However, I fear a new level of violence. The repression is likely to become even bloodier than before.

F.P.: For me, there are two options in Syria. Either the international community decides to intervene in a serious way, which seems unlikely for the reasons I mentioned, or the Assad regime succeeds in riding out the revolt. This second scenario seems more likely. In my opinion, the protests will subside, Damascus will succeed in crushing the political opposition as well as the armed groups who want a civil war. Very slowly, a “normalization" will take place. Sure, nothing will be as before, the government will be required to make concessions, but in my opinion, it will remain relatively authoritarian. I think this process will be very slow. The turmoil will continue for at least several years. Syria has entered a cycle of violence.


Date created : 2011-09-14


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