A Closer Look at the Crisis in Syria

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posted August 23, 2012

Senior Fellow Martin Collacott served as Canada's ambassador to Syria in the 1990s. With some 30 years of distinguished service in Canada's Department of External Affairs, Collacott also held key diplomatic posts in Nigeria, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan, and China, where he was a member of the negotiating team that established diplomatic relations between Canada and the People's Republic. Collacott served as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Ambassador to Syria, Lebanon and Cambodia, and was Director General for Security Services at the Canadian Department of External Affairs, where he was responsible for the coordination of counterterrorism policy at the international level. Collacott's work with the Fraser Institute focuses on issues related to terrorism and immigration. He recently discussed the causes and consequences of the Syrian civil war with Alan Dowd, senior editor of Fraser Insight.

Fraser Insight: The anti-autocracy revolutions across the Arab world have ranged from relatively peaceful (Tunisia and Egypt) to violent (Libya and Yemen). But all of them were rapid compared to what is transpiring in Syria, where a civil war has raged since March 2011 and an estimated 20,000 people have been killed. Why is Syria so different from its neighbors in this regard?

Collacott: Bashar al-Assad was not slated to take over when his father died. His heir-apparent brother was killed in a car accident. Speculation was that Bashar was westernized and would be open to reforms. This was in part because he had been educated in the UK as an ophthalmologist when asked to take the reins of power following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. But after taking office, Bashar almost immediately began adopting a hardline stance particularly when it came to finding any kind of accommodation with Israel. My own assessment of his situation at that time was that, being relatively young and with no political or military background, it was virtually impossible for him to do otherwise.

By the time armed rebellion broke out in early 2011, I suspect that any liberalizing tendencies he may have had when he first assumed office had long since been suppressed and, in the face of an existential threat to the regime, the younger Assad saw himself as having a historical destiny to save Syria. Not long after the elder Assad took power, he had been faced with widespread and violent opposition by Sunni fundamentalists. The elder Assad fought back, however, and by 1982 was able to crush the insurrection and restore stability, killing perhaps 20,000 people in the process. Bashar surely saw the parallel.

The younger Assad is facing a more daunting task given that a good deal more support for the current opposition is coming from outside Syria's borders than was the case during the 1979-1982 confrontation, and the opposition is now more broadly based since it includes a good many people who simply want a more liberal system of government, in addition to those seeking an Islamic state.

It's safe to say that both sides in Syria probably underestimated the resolve of the other. The regime almost certainly expected that the opposition would be cowed by the brutal response to the initial demonstrations. The opposition very likely thought that the Assad regime would have to make significant concessions particularly in view of the substantially greater interest the international community has taken in events in Syria compared to 1982. The fact that there had been military intervention by Western countries last year in Libya no doubt encouraged the rebels to expect that something similar would take place in Syria. In short, both sides seriously underestimated the resolve of the other in pursuing the conflict to the end something that was much less the case in other Arab Spring countries.

Fraser Insight: Speaking of the Arab Spring, how is the Syrian civil war related to the wider Arab Spring revolutions?

Collacott: The events that triggered the civil war in Syria were clearly inspired by the examples of successful opposition to regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The response of the Assad government, however, made it clear from the outset that it saw its best course as crushing the opposition totally. This decision may well have been inspired by the example of the success of the government in Iran of suppressing large-scale demonstrations following the disputed presidential election in 2009. While the Iranian authorities were quite brutal at times in accomplishing this (a number of demonstrators were killed by security forces in the course of the demonstrations), the Syrians went even further: there is strong evidence they tortured some of those they captured before killing them. This ignited fierce opposition to the Assad regime throughout Syria. The die, therefore, was cast for a violent and widespread confrontation almost from the outset.

When I served as ambassador in Syria two decades ago, such an outbreak seemed well beyond the realm of possibility. This was in part because the older generation was still quite conscious of the instability that pervaded Syria in the years between post-World War II independence and the assumption of power by the Baath Party and Assad senior in the 1960s. The need to maintain stability and continuity was an almost-overriding priority at the time I was there. It would appear today, however, there has been something of a generational change.

Fraser Insight: Can you discuss some of those historical, ethnic and religious forces fueling this conflict?

Collacott: The Alawite minority, from which Assad comes, comprises about 10 percent of the population. The Alawites are seen by Syria's Sunni majority as the principal source of repression under the Assads and will be particularly vulnerable to retribution. Even if there is regime change, it is quite conceivable that elements of the military and security forces that are largely Alawite will continue the conflict in order to protect the Alawite population. There are also some 2 million Syrian Christians, who would be particularly fearful in the event of an Islamist takeover, as well as smaller but significant numbers of other religious and ethnic groups that could be affected in one way or another by regime change.

With regard to the armed opposition, while it appears that various elements are involved, it is likely that Sunni Islamist fundamentalists will be more immediately demanding in terms of early assumption of power than they have been in other Arab Spring countries. They have bitter memories of the violent suppression 30 years ago and will be out for revenge and for power sooner rather than later.

Fraser Insight: Would removal of Assad and his inner circle make a difference, or is Syria doomed because of Assad's apparent desire to carry his father's mantle?

Collacott: Many are calling for a removal of Assad as the first step towards regime change. It is very likely, however, that many senior figures in the army and security services are at least as hardline as he and would have to be removed before any accommodation with the opposition could be reached. His departure alone, therefore, would not in itself be likely to lead to any lasting cessation of hostilities.

Fraser Insight: So how would the entire regime's defeat impact the region?

Collacott: Were regime change to take place, among the countries in the region, the most obvious loser would be Iran. Syria is Iran's only close friend in the area and it is unlikely that any new government in Damascus would continue their close relationship. A key element in current Syrian-Iranian ties is the support provided by Damascus for Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such support would almost certainly come rapidly to an end in the event of regime change in Syria. Were this to happen, the possibility that Tehran would encourage Hezbollah to engage in some sort of major offensive against Israel cannot be ruled out. The objective of such an exercise would be to try to divert attention away from what is happening in Syria and to unite Muslims both Sunni and Shia in common cause against Israel.

Even without an attack by Hezbollah on Israel, the current conflict in Syria could have a major destabilizing effect in Lebanon. Support is reportedly being provided from Lebanese territory both by Hezbollah to the Syrian government and by Sunni fundamentalists to the rebels. Clashes between Hezbollah and Sunni fundamentalists in Lebanon are therefore a serious possibility.

Destabilization in Jordan could also occur. The Hashemite Kingdom has a population that is 40 percent Palestinian as a result of the Arab-Israeli dispute and already has to tread carefully. The addition of tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, including probably a good many Sunni fundamentalists, could complicate life further for Amman.

Turkey has been very much involved in the events in Syria accepting refugees fleeing across the border and allowing the opposition Syrian National Council to operate from its territory. In the event the situation deteriorated to the point that Syria effectively disintegrated, the Kurdish population in northeast Syria might declare some sort of autonomy or independence. Turkey has by far the largest Kurdish minority of any country and would be troubled by any move toward an independent Kurdish state.

Finally, Iraq remains fragile because of friction between Sunnis, who under Saddam Hussein controlled the state, and Shia. In the event of a Sunni fundamentalist takeover in Syria, there could be increased movement from Syria into Iraq of Sunni extremists bent on exacerbating sectarian confrontation.

Fraser Insight: The United States, Canada and several NATO allies have been deeply engaged in Afghanistan for a decade, were militarily engaged in Libya until the regime was toppled, have played a behind-the-scenes role in Egypt, have steadily expanded involvement in Yemen and yet have remained disengaged in Syria. What role, if any, should the United States, Canada and their allies play in post-Assad Syria?

Collacott: While the diminution of Iranian influence in Syria in the event of regime change is a clear positive for Western countries, the uncertain outcome of the conflict and possibility that anti-Western Sunni fundamentalists will emerge as the dominant element in a post-Assad Syria renders Western military intervention boots on the ground unlikely. Syria's considerable military clout, moreover, increases the reluctance of other countries to become involved. This does not, however, preclude limited action by Western and particularly American Special Operations forces to seize and decommission Syrian stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons to prevent them from falling into the hands of extremists.

Western countries may try to position themselves to appear sympathetic to the rebels and provide some sort of assistance in order to set the stage for reasonably good relations with a post-Assad Syria. There are also suggestions that, to the extent that Western countries support the opposition, we should concentrate on elements most likely to be friendly to the West, and less likely to establish a strongly Islamic state.

At this point, it's difficult to envisage Syria as we know it staying together.

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