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Syria's Quiet Civil War?

NEW YORK, NY (KWR) November 21, 2011 - The Jasmine Revolution was successful in regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The first two cases were relatively peaceful, eventually toppling autocratic regimes. Tunisia has since gone to the electoral polls and has a new elective government. Egypt is set to hold elections this month. Libya, however, underwent a nasty civil war in which their tyrant Muammar Gaddafi was killed. The country has considerable work ahead, including the restoration of law and order and elections. All of this should be instructive to Syria, which is in the midst of its own increasingly bloody civil war.

In Syria, it is estimated that more than 3,500 people have died in anti-government protests, according to the United Nations. Security forces have generally remained loyal to the Assad regime, despite the widespread nature of public discontent. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military ultimately sided with the people, the Syrian armed forces have generally demonstrated a willingness to use tanks and heavy weaponry to attack civilian demonstrators or residential areas suspected of being anti-regime. In Homs, central Syria, some military defectors have been observed, but thus far there appears to be no large-scale desertions or switching sides. This is important for President Bashar al-Assad's government, as the military remains his regime's bedrock. He also has the support of some of the smaller ethnic and religious communities who are apprehensive of the Sunni majority. It is no coincidence that Assad's religious group, the Alawites, are heavily represented in the security forces. If Bashar falls, they have much to lose.

It is important to underscore the thinking of the Assad regime. Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, who is also known as the Lion of Damascus) ruled with an iron hand, which the population was largely accepted since he also provided political stability and a degree of economic growth. With the advent of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the situation changed as Islamic forces throughout the Middle East sought to challenge secular regimes. In Syria, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood launched a bombing and assassination campaign against the state, the high point of which was a nearly successful attempt against Hafez in 1980. By 1982, Syria was in a near state of civil war, with the Muslim Brotherhood being particularly strong in the city of Hama. Within the regime's leadership, there was a very strong sentiment that, unless a major blow was struck, the Islamists would take over the country.

On February 2, 1982, a battle developed over Hama, with the Muslim Brotherhood calling for a general uprising. The regime quickly mobilized its forces, put the city under siege and, after three weeks of fighting, crushed the Islamists.

The significance of Hama was "Hama rules;" the regime would take all steps necessary to crush the opposition, including bombing its own citizens and razing whole sections of the city. Hafez al-Assad effectively broke the Muslim Brotherhood and Syria has not had any major political turmoil until 2010. Many of the regime's older members, including Hafez's widow and Bashar's mother, remember the effectiveness of Hama rules, which is evident in the current response.

Table: Syria's Economic Data

  Avg. 2000-2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011E 2012E
Real GDP (%) 3.8 5.0 5.7 4.5 6.0 3.2 -2.0 1.5
CPI (%) 2.7 10.4 4.7 15.2 2.8 4.4 6.0 5.0
Gen. Gov't Fiscal Bal.
(% of GDP)
-2.1 -1.1 -3.0 -2.9 -2.9 -5.1 -11.0 -9.1
Total Gov't Gross Debt
(% of GDP)
120.1 46.9 43.2 37.4 31.4 29.7 27.5 27.9
Current Acct. Bal.
(% of GDP)
-2.3 1.4 -0.2 -1.3 -3.6 -3.9 -6.1 -6.1
Gross Official Reserves 11.2 16.5 17.0 17.1 17.5 17.9 16.3 15.1
Source: IMF Regional Economic Outlook, October 2011.

While Syria's anti-Assad forces struggle to protest against the autocratic regime, the geopolitical situation is becoming more complicated. The Assad regime has long been allied to Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, relationships that have put it at odds at different times with Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan. Relations with Turkey and Syria were usually cordial, but far from warm, considering Damascus' support for the Kurdish separatists (PKK) in Turkey. Syria's civil war in 2011 has not improved relations with Turkey. as the Turks have become more assertive in recent years in achieving their national interests. Along these lines, Ankara's interests are best served by a peaceful and stable Syria. A civil war in Syria could result in the fragmentation of a key country on Turkey's southern flank. This could create new problems with Syria's Kurdish minority.

The geo-political situation took a new twist in early November 2011 when The Daily Telegraph (UK) revealed the existence of the "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) in Turkey, which aims to be "the military wing of the Syrian people's opposition to the regime." According to the paper, the force amounts to between 5,000 to 15,000 men, has the covert support of the Turkish government and is largely made up of defectors from the Syrian military. Moreover, the FSA has been allowed to operate in Syria against the Assad regime's security forces. Its leader was identified as Colonel Riad al-Assad, who stated "We are the future army of the new Syria. We are not in league with any particular sect, religion or political party. We believe in protecting all elements of Syrian society."

There are two significant implications to consider. First and foremost, if the FSA has a sizable following - of up to 15,000 - it indicates the military and security forces are not holding firm. Any erosion of support of this group to the regime is a major problem for Assad's survival.

The second factor is that the FSA demonstrates the Assad regime has made an enemy in Turkey. Indeed, Ruth Sherlock, writing for The Telegraph on November 8, 2011 observed that the FSA "shows the anger of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's premier, with Mr. Assad, a former ally whose failed promises of reform have caused a deep rift." Colonel Riad al-Assad has indicated the FSA would like to have a "safe zone" in the North of Syria, a buffer zone in which the FSA can get better organized. From there, it could become the armed wing of the Syrian National Council, the umbrella organization of the political opposition announced at a recent conference in Istanbul.

Syria's time of troubles also has an economic element. A civil war clearly is not good for the economy. The IMF is currently forecasting a two percent contraction in real GDP in 2011. The longer the fighting goes on and the more destructive it is, the bigger the impact on slowing the economy. A two-year recession could easily extend into a steep depression, leaving the Syrian economy afloat and with little or no external support.

Syria has little economic weight, but it does have a critical geo-strategic position in a very volatile region.

Syria shares borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. It has a multi-ethnic religious population that has sympathetic neighboring communities. A Libyan-like scenario for Syria could witness the fragmentation of the country. This would obviously tempt outside forces, like the Turks and possibly the Iranians to intervene. A full, all-out civil war could also see the country head down the same destructive path as Lebanon did in the 1970s and 1980s, from which it is still struggling to exit. Another civil war in the Middle East is never a good thing. The risk is that Syria's quiet civil war draws in other powers, giving it a regional dimension. This is something that is never good for international financial markets.


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