Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:36 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:36 | SYDNEY

Syria: United we stand, divided they fall


Rodger Shanahan


8 February 2012 16:27

The Assad survival strategy has always been to hang tough and hope that circumstances change around you. While this has worked in the past, the world in which Bashar operates is much changed from that of his father, and the unprecedented opposition the Syrian Government now faces is likely to preclude this tactic from succeeding this time around

But where there's life, there's hope, and Assad realises that the only way he can survive is to try to defeat his opponents one by one, and then offer sufficient reforms so that his grip on power is not affected but his external enemies are placated. 

Externally, he has been hanging on – the UN Security Council veto by China and Russia bought him time to deal with his internal enemies in Homs and showed that there was no united international front against him. Regionally, while he is facing Arab states who appear to have harnessed an unusually high level of unity, such is the nature of the region that such unity is difficult to maintain. Bahrain's refusal to attend the next meeting of the Arab League (because it's being held in Baghdad; Iraqi Shi'a supported the Bahraini opposition protests) illustrates how fractious the 22-nation bloc can be.

Internally, Assad and his confidantes obviously believe they can better the opposition. And while there are plenty of reports regarding the desertion of Syrian army troops, many are likely to be exaggerated; the opposition appears to be only lightly armed, while the rump Syrian military has remained loyal. 

The Alawite minority has been preparing for this day since it came to power, and the best equipped and trained of the Syrian military are largely Alawite-led, and in some cases Alawite-manned. Unless someone is able to guarantee their place in a post-Assad era (which is unlikely), the Alawite community is fighting for its own survival by propping up the regime.

As the torch begins to shine more brightly on the Syrian opposition, there are increasing doubts about how much of Syria they represent. While the leader of the peak opposition political grouping, the Syrian National Council, cuts an impressive figure when talking about the future of a post-Assad Syria, this harsh, unflattering Foreign Policy piece on the Council's limited support base and dominance by the Muslim Brotherhood shows that public questions are beginning to be asked about the alternatives to Assad's Alawite dictatorship.

On the military side, discord has emerged among the leadership. Last weekend saw the most senior military defector from the Syrian military, General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, boldly predicting the quick collapse in February of the Syrian army. The Free Syrian Army was none too pleased with this ambit claim for leadership, with its deputy leader calling the announcement 'a knife in the back of the revolution'. The FSA's leader said al-Sheikh represented only himself.

Some of the forces battling the Syrian army in Homs were independent of both groups, calling into question just how much centralised command there is of the military component of the opposition. 

No resistance movement is ever completely united, and none of this disunity or lack of minority representation among the opposition groups guarantees that the Assad regime will survive. Assad's only chance is for him to destroy those forces aligned against him inside the country while using all means at his disposal to divide his enemies outside. And so long as he has friends with deep enough pockets and who are willing to accept IOUs, bordering countries which prefer the current regime to one that may follow, a disunited internal opposition, a loyal military and an east-west split over further international action, he may be around for longer than many of us think.

PS. This story on the Free Syrian Army's operations from northeast Lebanon, featured in the always readable leftist al-Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon, provides a good snapshot of the FSA membership's backgrounds, including their religiosity.

Photo by Flickr user fabuleuxfab.