Experts Analyze the Syria Crisis

Report on DAG Seminar

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

What do we really know about the Syrian crisis? Given the press distortions and partisan accounts from both sides, it is not an easy question to answer. In the words of a professional risk analyst speaking at a recent seminar in Germany, it is comparable to what we can know about a hippopotamus in water: after all, what we see are only its ears and eyes. Indeed, fourteen months after the outbreak of demonstrations in Syria, anyone who claims to know how the crisis will evolve and where it will ultimately lead is either endowed with super-human capabilities or is submerged deep into the water, with goggles, an oxygen mask, and measuring instruments capable of measuring the beast’s heartbeat and other vital signs.
The seminar, entitled, “Syria in Civil War: the Multiethnic State Put to the Test” (“Syrien im Bürgerkrieg: der Vielvölkerstaat in der Zerreißprobe”), was organized by the German-Arab Society together with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation on May 17-18, in the Theodor-Heuss Akademie in Gummersbach, Germany. Contrary to what the title might imply, there was no clear consensus that the strategically situation Middle Eastern country is in a state of civil war. The view of the experts examining the crisis was that conflict along ethnic and religious/sectarian lines was a potential but not an inevitable outcome, and that it did not have roots in Syrian history. As Samir Matar, a Syrian journalist living and working in Germany for 22 years, highlighted in his background report on the history of Syria since independence, prior to the Assad dynasty’s emergence, different religious and ethnic groups coexisted peacefully. Fadwa Suleiman, an actress active in the protest movement, made a point of the fact that the opposition included the entire range of ethnic and religious factions in Syria.
The position of the Christian community merited special attention. Barbara Brustlein, editor in chief of Missio, a publication of the Pontifical Mission Society, transmitted the assessment of several high-ranking church leaders with whom she had spoken personally. Countering the widespread notion that the church leaders – and their Christian communities – were by definition all pro-Assad, she explained that many churchmen, likening their plight to that of Christians in Iraq, feared that they too would be targeted, their churches destroyed, and their communities forced to flee. Several bishops she quoted consider the West as supporting the Gulf states now mobilized against the Assad regime. High-ranking clergy often express their anxiety that Al Qaida or other Islamic extremists may gain the upper hand, and embrace the view that “dictatorship may be terrible, but theocracy is worse.” All this dovetails with the official line of the Assad regime that the protestors are “terrorists” and that, if the regime is toppled, Al Qaida (or Islamic fundamentalists) will prevail. As a result, Christians are dubbed loyalists. This argument, however, is tainted by irrationality as evidenced by the use (or rather, abuse) of the term “theocracy.” For anyone living in the region, the term raises the spectre of an Iranian-style system. But, none of the Syrian opposition endorses such a system, and Iran is backing the Assad regime. The picture presented by Ms. Brustlein was one of a Christian clerical establishment gripped by fear, and clinging to an order it has always valued as “stable.” As she conceded, some leading clergymen are close to Assad and at the same time estranged from their own flock, many of whom have demanded their leaders take a position against dictatorship.
What, then, should be said about the protestors? Ralf Erbel, who works out of the Amman and Damascus offices of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, introduced a couple of questions regarding the Syrian opposition, which would be the subject of heated debate throughout the seminar: has the Syrian National Council, with its leadership drawn from Syrians abroad, been able to present its “vision” for a post-Bashar Syria? What truth is there to charges that Al Qaida has infiltrated the opposition? Are the Gulf Arabs, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, not supporting the opposition financially, politically, and militarily as part of a geopolitical maneuver aimed at undermining the regional strength of Iran and its allies?
Dr. Erik Mohns, from the University of Southern Denmark, lent credence to the latter view, casting the regional line-up under the rubric of an “Arab Cold War” in which a Sunni conservative alliance stood against a so-called Shi’ite crescent, or, better, against a “resistance front” made up of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Dr. Sadiqu Al-Mousllie, a member of the Syrian National Council, was the one called upon to provide answers. Asked point blank about funding from outside forces (Qatar, Saudi Arabia), and sources of weapons supplies to the Free Syrian Army, he acknowledged Qatari financial support but flatly denied the Saudis had provided arms. Pressed to explain the SNC’s heteronomy, he said the lack of unity was a result of its being a collection of different groups. He reiterated his conviction – without much to back it up -- that the FSA functioned as an armed movement exclusively to protect non-violent protestors during their peaceful demonstrations, and that it “shouldn’t be an aggressive force.” Whether or not the SNC had political control over the FSA was left open. When pressed repeatedly to define the SNC’s “vision” for a post-Assad era, he could not go beyond generalities regarding the pursuit of a civil, pluralistic, democratic state.
Another issue raised in relation to the opposition was the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in light of the precedents in Tunisia and Egypt. Christian Wolff, a political scientist from Erlangen University, provided a useful summary of the history of the movement from its beginnings in Egypt to its activities in Syria. He differentiated throughout between the faction identified with Hasan al-Banna, which embraced a national base for statehood, with sovereignty and respect for the individual, on the one hand, and the radical extremist faction linked to Sayyid Qutb, which calls for the overthrow of worldly governments in the pursuit of the Umma, on the other. He characterized the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a movement (rather than a party) in a Sunni milieu, committed to “Islamic Socialism,” and respectful of national independence. At present, they were supporting the vision of a modern Syrian state with free and fair elections; they were not allied to the Salafists and have expelled Al Qaida sympathizers from their ranks.
Speaking from the opposition was Syrian actress Fadwa Suleiman. Having been in Daraa and Homs during the conflict, she provided an eye-witness account of events, and delivered a number of messages: first, that the movement began as a peaceful, non-violent resistance “with protestors holding the olive branch,” against which the Assad regime, using the pretext of alleged terrorists, deployed violence. She stressed that the FSA had come into being solely to protect unarmed demonstrators, and voiced her belief that peaceful, non-violent resistance was the most powerful tool for the opposition. Expressing confidence that all political problems would be solved in a post-Assad era, she called for international support for the opposition, both political and financial (but not military), specifically urging European governments to break diplomatic relations with Damascus. She said the opposition wanted to “overthrow the regime, but not destroy the State.”
Just who Bashar al Assad and his father Hafiz represent was another theme addressed. For Suleiman, the regime and Bashar “are one.” She recalled that Bashar’s inaugural address in 2000 had raised high hopes, in her as well, but that he had betrayed them. He could have become the greatest Syrian president, she said, but he failed. Thus, the revolution had come “eleven years late.” Other participants in the seminar pointed to the Assad regime’s historical lack of credibility and truthfulness, when one contrasts the young president’s “reform agenda” with political reality over more than a decade. Conflicting accounts of his rise to the presidency as well as questions regarding his activities in England enhanced the image of duplicity.
Ulrich Kienzle, a seasoned regional expert, journalist, and author, offered a sober reading of the history of Syria under the Assads. Dismissing as mythology the notion that Syria has been a serious opponent of Israel, Kienzle said that following the 1973 war, both Egypt and Syria concluded that they would not win any future wars against Israel. Egypt’s military became more an economic factor in the country, and Assad concentrated his efforts on a brutal internal power struggle. Hafiz Assad moved against his political enemies, like Rifaat, and decimated the organized challenge posed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama 1982, in what was to be an “example.” The conflict with Israel has evolved in proxy wars in Lebanon, to Israel’s detriment, with the founding of Hezbollah, for example. An intriguing suggestion Kienzle made was that, had Israel actually struck a deal with Syria and returned the Golan Heights, the so-called Shi’ite crescent would not have come into being. Now, with the Syrian upheaval and the possible change to a Sunni regime, Israel would be in a less propitious position. Both Hafiz and Bashar were considered predictable oriental despots by Israel but, if a new paradigm were to emerge, that would change.
One central issue tackled in a round table discussion was the role of armed struggle and the FSA vs. non-violent resistance. The consensus, led by Fadwa Suleiman, was that, to be effective, the opposition must retain, or better, restore its non-violent character. Ms. Brustlein of Missio had stated that, had the opposition remained peaceful, it would have prevailed long ago. Others recalled that over the past century it has been through non-violent movements that peaceful regime change has occurred, in India, South Africa, and East Germany. Yet, attempts at reviving a non-violent protest have been stymied. Matar reported on the spontaneous “Stop the Killing” movement, in which individual citizens have gone out into the streets with posters carrying that message, and have met with violence, arrests, and torture. That notwithstanding, there was wide agreement that the non-violent resistance, where it still exists, will not capitulate.
At the same time, the armed struggle is a fact, though, as Erbel noted, it is not united except around the demand for regime change. He urged Syrians to seek ways of influencing the FSA and coordinating with the SNC. Suleiman stressed the FSA’s defensive nature and said that, as a military force, it could not be politically active in a post-Assad context.

Syria’s Future
Given the stalemate, the question is: where will it end? Erbel floated two scenarios: a political transformation, i.e. real reforms or regime change, or, the worst-case scenario, Lebanonization. All seemed to agree that, were the Syrian crisis to escalate further into full-scale civil war along sectarian/ethnic lines, this would have repercussions in Lebanon, where low-intensity conflicts in Tripoli had already erupted. And the price of civil war, as Kienzle noted, is very high; Lebanon’s 15-year civil war left 150,000 dead. Syrian civilians, especially refugees, are already paying a high price, as Susanne Osthoff, a humanitarian aid worker from Orienthelfer, reported. Although aid organizations, like MEDEOR with which she works, has collected massive contributions for medicines and medical equipment to aid those refugees severely wounded or ill, bureaucratic snags in Jordan delay delivery, forcing her group to find informal solutions, smuggling through Bedouin channels, for example.
The most chilling assessment of the Syrian crisis came from Dr. Heinrich Matthée, the man who introduced the image of the hippopotamus’s ears and eyes above the water line. A strategy advisor from JISR in Holland, Dr. Matthée deals in risk analysis, which means he tries to consider all possible factors, both rational and irrational. The experience of the 2003 Iraq war, he said had taught that many unexpected results can issue, like the ethnic/sectarian conflict which broke out following the dismantling of the Baath Party structures. As a result of that conflict, by 2008, Baghdad had been largely “ethnically cleansed” of its Sunni population. In the current Syrian crisis, he underlined the long-term nature of the struggle for control and authority, a struggle which involves winning the proverbial minds and hearts. Conflicts of this nature, he estimated, usually last 4 to 9 years. This means that Bashar could hold his position and the opposition could continue through guerrilla warfare, even though the relation of forces is far from equal. If the Syrian army did manage to crush Daraa, it did not do so in Homs, and is not in a position to eliminate the opposition everywhere simultaneously. When Syrian army and police leave a pacified area, what happens to the population? Do they accept the authority of the regime or go over to the opposition? Then, considering economic factors, he said the government currently controlled supply lines, but when economic conditions worsened, the ability to buy off members of the population would become increasingly important.
In his view, we are just at the beginning of a long process. Given that Assad had cast the opposition as terrorists, Matthée thinks that if he is to be replaced, he will either be overthrown militarily or removed through a coup. He characterized the coup option, one of five scenarios he listed, as realistic and thought it could be the most peaceful option. Although no signs of such are yet visible, it is a question of “human nature,” and, since the regime currently depends on the security apparatus, if its leadership were to demand Bashar’s overthrow and if it received guarantees, it could occur. Other scenarios he sketched include the victory of the opposition; the survival of the regime, which would entail accelerating violence and economic decline; and, an EU and/or US intervention.
The possibility of intervention from abroad was the subject of an analysis by Dr. Gerhard Fulda, a leading member of the German-Arab Society and former German ambassador in several Muslim capitals. Dr. Fulda reviewed the history of international interventions voted up by the UN Security Council and the so-called “Responsibility to Protect” concept. A repetition of the decision to endorse military action in Libya was not likely given the differences between that country and Syria, especially in view of principled Russian and Chinese opposition to any such move. Estimating that a possible civil war in Syria would thus become a proxy war, the speaker thought it would expand to a regional conflict worse than the current situation. As for the Annan plan, Dr. Fulda said it had been used to gain time; now Kofi Annan would have to report to the UN Security Council, then further action would be decided. Kienzle characterized the bind the Syrian government is in, by saying it cannot resign and it cannot reform. He dismissed the suggestion made by German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, that only Bashar could implement reforms, as impossible given the violence.

The Information War
The organizers of the seminar sought to provide factual information on the background and current status of the process, and therefore deliberately invited specialists in various aspects of the matter, not political spokesmen. The one exception was the SNC representative, whose presence was contested, not only by pro-Assad participants but also by some among the sponsors. A speaker presenting the government position would have been welcomed, but, as German-Arab Society Secretary General Harald Bock explained, the head of the German-Syrian Society had not responded to an invitation to take part. There were, however, individuals attending who brought the government stance into the discussion, arguing that Bashar al Assad had indeed introduced democracy, and pointing to press distortions.
As Matthée had recalled, the first casualty in conflict is truth, and in the Syrian case, indeed, massive press manipulation and distortion have been not the exception but the rule. Further insight into the reality faced by foreign press in Syria came from two journalists who had been in the conflict zone. Daniel Gerlach of Zenith magazine and Fabian Köhler, an Islam expert, testified to the diverse treatment given accredited journalists like Gerlach and those, like Köhler, who entered the country without visas. The former were escorted to selected sites on organized tours, the latter, when apprehended, were arrested; others had been killed.
The seminar took place ten days before the Houla massacre, a new inflection point in the process, around which press propaganda and political manipulation were to reach new heights. Has the hippopotamus sunk even more deeply into the water, or may he be about to come up on shore?