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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 21,517 21,900  19,500 67
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 US $ 1,160 1,130     1,040 130
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Books on Syria

Update No: 096 - (26/01/12)

Is it Civil War in Syria?
The initial revolt against the Baathist regime in Syria that began in March 2011 was framed in the eyes of the world, in the context of the ‘Arab Spring’, the arbitrary term given to the narrative of an anti-establishment wave, setting off revolts that started in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya and finally Syria.

After months of impasse and growing violence, also characterized by episodes of terrorism – very rare in Syria – the last of which included a roadside bomb that hit a bus full of prisoners on January 21, there is a growing consensus among the media and international authorities that Syria is heading toward a civil war.

The simplified definition of civil war is of ‘a conflict between organized armies within the same nation state’. In the Levant, an area that was arbitrarily organized into nation states by western colonial powers from the rubble of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the very notion of nation state has long been problematic.

Nation states have an inherent legitimacy based on a number of elements, from a common language to a common faith and all leading to a collective sense of destiny. It is very difficult to make the case that any of the nation states, apart perhaps from Israel with its strong ethnic/ideological impulse, in the Middle East proper (as opposed to North Africa) ever had, or have, anything approaching a shared sense of destiny. Lebanon is the archetype of the post-Ottoman state, full of ethnic and religious divisions. While, Lebanon has generally been considered democratic – and it does have a generally free press – the state is fragile and rests on the constant search for a balance between loosely organized parties representing more confessional and ethnic elements than actual political or ideological aspirations. Lebanon, in fact, has experienced a number of civil wars throughout its short history and its political parties have armed militias.

Iraq was first held together by a weak monarchy and British military support; however, it was not until the iron fist of the Baath Party, particularly after it was taken over by Saddam Hussein, that Iraq assumed the appearance of a nation-state. Saddam’s iron fist crushed political freedom but it also gave Iraq a secular character and an unprecedented degree of stability; the Baath party acted as the foundation of the State. The American- led invasion of Iraq in 2003 broke the foundation, leading to the inevitable collapse and division in ethnic (ie the Kurds and Marsh Arabs) and religious (Shia/Sunni) factionalism.

By 2006, three years after the initial invasion, Iraq looked like the Lebanon of the 1980s; indeed, it was much worse, as the territory drew in foreign interests and foreign based terrorism. Moreover, while the Lebanese civil war ended in a reconfiguration of the initial confessional balance; in Iraq, weaker factions were forced to leave. Many Christians and secular minded Iraqis went to neighboring Syria in search of peace.

It can be said that what Iraq has experienced in the past decade, a phenomenon that has yet to reach its conclusion, seeing as perhaps the final chapter is being written now that American troops have left, was far worse than a civil war. The multi-factional character did not circumscribe the fighting to particular areas; attacks could take place anywhere and kill anyone. Most of the victims were innocent civilians. Religious festivals often turned into the most gruesome multiple crime scenes. This was not a civil war such as it was in 1930’s Spain between armies and well-defined political factions. By the Spanish definition then, there is no civil war in Syria. The Syrian government maintains the overwhelming control of the state and military power. There have been a limited number of defections while the core of the security apparatus and elite military leadership – dominated by the Alawi sect – remains intact. There remains a degree of unity and solidity in the government side.

The same cannot be said for the Syrian opposition, which is not made up by a single block, as some western sources would like to suggest. It is a mishmash of liberal democrats, self-proclaimed human rights activists, communists, as well as Islamic extremists, ranging from the milder Muslim Brothers, to the more hardcore Salafists. The opposition leadership is also divided between London, Paris and Ankara and while there is the Free Syrian Army, the latter includes foreign elements of dubious ideological persuasion. In other words, the fragmented opposition is only held together by opposition to the Baathist State and President Bashir al-Asad. A number of regional and foreign powers are also meddling with their influence, apparently immune to the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Were the Asad government to collapse, it seems inevitable that Syria would slide into a scenario combining post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and 1980’s Lebanon, as the various ideological, ethnic and religious factions would vie among each other for control.

The ‘Arab Spring’ was not supposed to happen in Syria; its army and security apparatus were too powerful; indeed, the only reason the Arab Spring succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt was because the armies in both those countries (having a much different sociological framework), had decided to throw their lot behind the protests. The case could be made that the armies themselves favored the overthrow of their respective regimes, because they too had grievances. In Syria, this did not happen and the result is a violent impasse, in which the elite state army is challenged on various fronts : by local militias, the Free Syrian Army, conscript army deserters and potential terrorists.

The Arab League, which has voted to extend an observation mission – buying more time for Asad – could also be one of the elements contributing to the opposition. In a speech, Asad has indicated his fears of an Arab military intervention, based on increasing rumors that an Arab military force might be deployed in Syria, ostensibly, to end the violence. Qatar and its Emir Hamad bin Jabr al-Thani have taken a very strong anti-Asad stance, having publicly advocated the deployment of an Arab military force in Syria. Despite its encouragement and decision to close the embassy in Damascus, the United States are unlikely to lead any military intervention in Syria yet it is not shying away from regional options and a Turkish-led attack might be one of those. While France and the United States have been encouraging organized outside force (though it would not include their direct involvement), international bodies such as the United Nations have so far discouraged any idea of foreign military intervention. Russia and China consider the Syrian uprising to be a strictly internal matter for which no outside interference can be justified. Therefore, the ’Libyan scenario’, for the time being remains out of the question and the sole official foreign intervention remains that of the Arab League observers. In a way, their extension is a victory for the non-interventionist camp.

The foreign interventionists are dangerously motivated by an increasingly sectarian vision of the Middle East. The Sunni powers of the Gulf, backed by Saudi Arabia, but in this case more visibly spearheaded by Qatar, see intervention in Syria as a way to break the ‘Shiite Crescent’ stretching from Lebanon to Iran, restoring Syria to the Sunni majority, supposedly through elections. This does not necessarily imply that Qatar or the other Gulf powers would intervene – all of them autocracies that have purchased their way out of the ‘Arab Spring through a burst of generous state spending. The Americans and the Israelis see an opportunity to crack the Islamic Republic of Iran, without ‘getting their hands dirty’, by detaching it from its longstanding ally, the Alawi Baathist regime, in Damascus.

It should be noted that the Syrian regime still enjoys strong support. A survey that was sponsored by the Qatari government in Syria, noted that 55% of Syrians still support Asad. This is a fact that outside powers ignore; its ignorance could set off Syria on the slippery path of Iraq and Afghanistan. Support for Asad does not necessarily imply that Syrians are in favor of the Baath party and of its continued unchallenged rule in Syria. Rather, it suggests that most Syrians would rather the regime evolve into a more democratic one than be forced or induced into democracy. Syrians do not want to see a repeat of the Iraqi scenario, as they understand where the kind of divisions that exist in the country – divisions that have more to do with ethnic and religious background than political ideology – can lead. Many Syrians also feel that foreign military intervention to topple the government would risk the stability of the entire area. The results are already being felt in Lebanon where the coalition headed by former prime minister Saad Hariri sees the weakness in Syria as a way to overthrow the government led by Najib Miqati, backed by the Syrian allied Hezbollah.

There is no love lost between the vast majority of Syrians and their current government. Nevertheless, Syrians fear what could be far worse than a civil war, they fear an Iraqi scenario with even greater regional and international implications. The best that can be hoped is for a gradual loosening of the Asad regime marked by constitutional amendments to allow a gradual introduction of multi-party democracy. The regime itself is playing for an Algerian style standoff. In 1992, elections led to an Islamist party win in Algeria. The army challenged the electoral results and prevented the winning Islamic Salvation Front from forming a government. This set off a violent civil war that killed over 100,000. The war, however, failed to bring down the government, which survived simply because the population eventually grew tired of the violence. The Asad government appears to be repeating this tactic. International pressure should play its part by urging more internal reforms, a’ la Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, rather than military intervention leading to a very ‘un-civil’ war.

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