- By Mona YacoubianMona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.
As Syria’s uprising lurches toward its seventh month, fears that the country will descend into a sectarian civil war are mounting. Several troubling developments suggest the potential transformation of Syria’s popular demonstrations into armed insurgency and sectarian chaos. Long feared as the Syrian uprising’s nightmare scenario, a sectarian civil war would be catastrophic for Syria and could enflame the region. With such high stakes, averting a sectarian war in Syria is critical for ensuring the stability of a region amidst momentous transformation.
Pursuing the regime’s controlled collapse holds the key to saving Syria from sectarian civil war. This strategy should focus on prying Syria’s concentric military and economic power circles apart from the regime’s clannish core. A concerted campaign bent on altering the strategic calculus of Syria’s Alawite army generals and its Sunni business elite could prompt their decision to disavow Bashar al-Assad and his privileged cronies who comprise the heart of the regime. The isolation and demise of the Assads’ clique would then pave the way for Syria’s more orderly transition, avoiding the specter of civil war.
Numerous signs that Syria’s uprising could veer toward civil war have emerged over the past few months. Some developments are rooted in a willful regime strategy of exacerbating sectarian tensions to scare Christian and Alawite minorities from joining the opposition. By pitting Alawites against predominantly Sunni protestors, the regime’s growing reliance on the shabiha (Alawite gangs cum militias) to do its killing underscores the crisis’s increasingly sectarian overtones.
Meanwhile, other developments indicate a more organic deepening of sectarianism based on centuries-old rivalries. Deteriorating conditions in the central city of Homs and its environs epitomizes Syria’s potential drift toward sectarian strife. Some observers have likened Homs to civil war-era Beirut, with its checkpoints, proliferation of weapons, and emerging evidence of "soft" sectarian partition. Growing indications that an embryonic armed insurgency may be forming are also concerning. The pace of army defections, currently estimated at 10,000, is increasing. Some defectors, such as the Free Syrian Army, have taken up arms against the regime in what they term an "armed rebellion." Security forces recently waged a days-long battle with armed defectors to regain control of the city of Rastan.
An assassination campaign targeting regime supporters denotes yet another dangerous turn of events in Syria. The son of the Sunni Grand Mufti, who is allied with the regime, was killed in a recent ambush. His murder marks the latest in a series of assassinations that has targeted doctors, professors, and others deemed as regime informants or supporters.
While time is not on the regime’s side, neither does it play to the advantage of a peaceful transfer of power. As the crisis grinds on, the uprising promises to grow bloodier despite the continued rejection of violence by many in the opposition. Should Syria descend into chaos, insulating its neighbors from widespread instability will prove difficult. Significant negative spillover effects could wreak havoc in Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and possibly Israel. Lebanon, with its inherent volatility and delicate sectarian balance, could bear the greatest brunt of the unrest, possibly with resurgence into another civil war. Stepped up violence in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Anbar province could be an early indicator of Syrian sectarian spillover and underscores Iraq’s vulnerability as U.S. troops withdraw. Turkey could witness escalated refugee influx and possibly a resumption of Kurdish PKK attacks should Assad opt to play the terrorism card. Assad could also draw Israel into conflict by provoking Tel Aviv, either directly or through proxies in Lebanon.
As Syria’s violence deepens, pressure for international military intervention is also growing. Surely, standing aside while Syrian civilians are killed is not an option. Yet, a kinetic response to Syria’s deepening crisis could well provoke a civil war with all of its negative ramifications. Prompted by the regime’s brutal repression — a bloodletting in its own right — the United States and its Western allies have called on Assad to step aside. Since he has discounted all condemnation form the international community, at this stage, a multilateral strategy seeking the controlled collapse of the Assad regime offers the best chance to avoid widespread chaos.
Syria’s power structure resembles a series of concentric circles, with Bashar and his close family members residing at the core. They have amassed tremendous wealth and control much of the military/security apparatus. Yet, despite these instruments of power, Assad’s base has narrowed significantly from the days of his father’s regime. Although a ruthless leader, the elder Assad wisely nurtured numerous constituencies reflecting Syria’s sectarian patchwork. He also kept corruption to a minimum and eschewed lavish living. His son’s generation of leaders, by contrast, is driven by corruption and noted for their contempt for Syria’s burgeoning lower classes. Unlike his father, Bashar has not effectively cultivated a broad base of support, instead managing to alienate large segments of the population, including many of his fellow Alawites.
Given the regime’s narrow base, a strategy of controlled regime collapse would aim to split off key constituencies in the military and business elite, ideally bridging them with a shared goal of ousting Bashar and his close cronies. Bashar is assured the loyalty of the Fourth Armored Division which is led by his brother Maher and the multiple intelligence services which are headed by key members of his inner circle. However, it is possible that a broader swath of the Alawite officer class may not view their interests as aligning with the Assads. They have not benefited from the same levels of personal enrichment and could be growing disillusioned with the regime’s heavy repression, particularly as the prospects for a civil war rise. These potential fissures must be closely monitored and encouraged.
Meanwhile, the Sunni-dominated business elite thus far have remained neutral in the uprising. Based primarily in Damascus and Aleppo, the business class has not joined the protests. However, some reports suggest this business elite is growing frustrated and may be providing some quiet support to the opposition. While the regime reversed its rash decision to implement an import ban, its credibility is faltering. Given Syria’s downward economic trends, the business class could alter their calculations and split from the regime, particularly if they determine their financial future is imperiled.
The challenges of peeling away these two crucial centers of power — the military and the business elite — are significant. Nonetheless, a series of coordinated measures, implemented by key stakeholders inside and outside Syria, could succeed in breaking these power circles off from the regime core, precipitating the demise of Assad and his clique. Taken together, these measures aim to shift these key actors’ strategic interests away from the regime.
First, the continued ratcheting of economic pressure on the regime would help to tighten the noose around Assad’s inner circle. Measures that restrict the regime’s cash flow and target individuals directly associated with repression are critical. At the same time, broader economic policies such as the European Union’s oil sector investment ban should be combined with additional sanctions that strike at future earnings potential, sending a strong message to the business class that Syria’s commercial climate will be bleak at best. Turkey and other regional players including Iraq and Saudi Arabia will be essential to this effort. Ankara’s recently announced plan to impose sanctions on Syria — coupled with scheduled military exercises near the Syrian border — could increase pressure markedly by signaling the decisive loss of Syria’s key trading partner.
Economic pressure tactics should be combined with additional efforts to deepen Syria’s diplomatic isolation. As Damascus increasingly resembles the Pyongyang of the Levant, the military and business power elite may realign against the regime. Despite the Russian and Chinese vetoes, a proposed United Nations Security Council resolution demanding the end to violent repression and implicitly threatening sanctions still sends a further signal to the regime’s latent supporters that the Assad regime has little longevity. Of course, failure to pass the resolution underscores the need for greater diplomatic heavy lifting with Russia, China, and other key powers. Providing assurances against military intervention will be critical to bringing these countries on board.
Beyond these external pressure tactics, several steps must be taken inside Syria to encourage the splintering off of key factions, namely the military and the business elite, currently allied with the regime. Forging greater unity among opposition elements by voicing strong guarantees for minorities in a post-Assad Syria, particularly Christians and Alawites, is essential for drawing support away from the regime. The recently declared Syrian National Council is a significant step in the right direction — representing the most important gathering of disparate opposition elements to date. However, its resonance inside Syria remains to be seen. More concentrated outreach by core Sunni opposition elements inside Syria must assuage the fears of Syria’s minorities by providing assurances that their communities will not be targeted in a post-Assad era. In particular, Alawite and Christian military officers and business elements must feel convinced that they have a future in Syria following the regime’s collapse.
Indeed, it will be crucial to neutralize deepening sectarian tendencies and diminish the appeal of violent revolt as a key step toward staving off a civil war. Fostering creative non-violent resistance could provide an important means for the peaceful protests to gain new momentum. Measures including work stoppages, boycotts, strikes, and creative resistance campaigns could target the Syrian government bureaucracy and commercial sector, rejuvenating the opposition without spurring further violence.
Finally, regional intermediaries and possibly internal Syrian elements must explore back channel contacts with the Alawite officer class. As the uprising evolves, this crucial pillar of government support could be ripe for defecting from the regime. A controlled regime collapse strategy should seek to identify key members of the military who may oppose the Assads and explore points of influence and leverage with them. It will be equally important to build bridges between these Alawite officers and the Sunni business elite. Together these two key circles of power could forge a path for Syria’s transition that avoids sinking into civil war.
Mona Yacoubian is a senior program officer for the Middle East at the U.S. Institute of Peace. In November, she will join the Henry L. Stimson Center where she will continue working on the Arab uprisings.