1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Syrian scenarios

June 14, 2011

Syrian security forces appear to be showing no let-up in their violent crackdown on anti-government protesters. Prominent Syrian human rights activist Radwan Ziadeh has drawn up three possible conflict scenarios.

Radwan Ziadeh
Image: Radwan Ziadeh

Radwan Ziadeh is the founder and director of the "Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies." He was a leading activist of the 2001 Damascus Spring movement that demanded more political freedom and an end to one-party rule. In 2008 Syrian authorities issued an arrest warrant against Ziadeh, who has been living and teaching in Washington D.C. since 2007.

Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled after 32 days, his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak after 18. The revolutions there ended decades of autocratic rule and then rumbled on across the Arab world. Libya was next where the uprisings were met with brute force. So far 10,000 people have been killed. In Yemen, too, the revolt has spread to nearly all of the country's provinces and President Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to be standing on the edge of an abyss.

A closer examination of these revolutions reveals two so-called models of liberation:

1. The Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni model

Events in Egypt paved the way for this model where thousands upon thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cairo's central square day after day, thus piling up the pressure on Mubarak to go. The army played a pivotal role simply by refusing to open fire on the demonstrators, essentially rendering Mubarak's power obsolete.

An ideal model then, in as much as fatalities were kept to a minimum because the revolutions retained their peaceful character. The demonstrators showed the discipline needed to stick to non-violent action. That led to a huge outpouring of sympathy and support not just from their fellow Egyptians but also from the international community, thereby increasing the pressure on the president to step down.

2. The Libyan model

Here, armed opposition is being used as the last resort against the Gadhafi regime. Rebels captured the Western town of Misrata, liberated other parts of the country and advanced as far as possible.

Libyan lawyers and judges kicked off the protests with their Egypt-style rallies outside the courthouse in Benghazi. Libyan security forces, however showed little of the restraint exercised by their Egyptian counterparts, and almost immediately resorted to violence to disperse the protesters. The ensuing casualties meant that the Libyan revolution almost immediately went from being peaceful to an armed revolt.

The uprising was fuelled further by Gadhafi's scorched earth policy, using heavy weapons and fighter planes against his own people. As a result, the Libyan people only had one option left which was to appeal to the international community to stop Gadhafi's killing machine. It remains to be seen how long the Gadhafi regime can cling to power.

The question is to what extent these models can be applied to events in Syria. At first glance, the demonstations in Syria have remained peaceful, despite the violent crackdown and killings by the security forces. Dozens of protesters have been killed by snipers whenever they tried to gather at the central squares of towns like Daraa, Lattakia, Duma and Homs.

Each and every time they were dispersed by Syrian security forces, not with teargas or batons, but with targeted shots to the head and upper body.

As to whether the events will take on the dimension of what is happening in Libya, there are three possible scenarios at play:

1. The Syrian regime weathers the storm

The demonstrations and protests are put down violently and decisively within a timespan of a year or sooner, similar to Iran's "Green Revolution" in 2009 or Burma's "Saffron Revolution" in 2007.

The Syrian regime is counting on achieving the same effect with its random use of force and live ammunition, while the use of snipers is increasingly creating panic among protesters and leading to dwindling numbers.

Military checkpoints have been set up at all the important access roads and town districts have been isolated from each other to prevent protests from spilling over. Those who violate the curfew are shot dead, as has happened in Duma, Muadhamiya, Daria and other suburbs of Damascus. Those actions have curtailed the protest movements even though the Syrian regime has far fewer supporters than Iran's. That was highlighted by the fact that the protests began in a governorate traditionally loyal to the Assad regime and not in the Kurdish regions that have a long history of staging anti-regime protests.

So far the Sunni secular population in places like Aleppo has stayed on the sidelines, however if the protests spread to these areas and people there take to the streets, Assad's regime would be in great danger and not even a large-scale violent crackdown would save it.

Syrian soldiers
There are first signs of dissent within Syrian army ranksImage: AP

2. A split within Syria's army

A second scenario would see the protests continue, albeit at a lower intensity, and the army would continue its violent crackdown. However if Syrian troops were forced to fight on several fronts at the same time, this could create more divisions and lead to soldiers breaking ranks as has happened in Daraa, Rastan Homs and Dania. There have been widespread reports that those deserters were shot by security forces.

Eyewitnesses and soldiers report of a mutiny within the Syrian army and those reports have also been backed up by videos on the Internet. If the army were to become bogged down in protracted battles with protesters, it would only be a matter of time before high-ranking officers changed sides. Those officers breaking ranks to protect civilians would likely have to do battle with the elite "Fourth Division", however they would first need to secure the backing of the lower-ranked soldiers and it would require that the demonstrations spread across the whole country and remain peaceful.

3. Foreign intervention

The third possible option would see the protests and the army crackdown continue relentlessly. Should the civilian death toll continue to rise it could pave the way for international involvement to protect the protesters. Of the three options, this is the least desirable as it would mean that Syria follows in Libya's footsteps. Given the increasingly violent crackdown and the regime's apparent indifference in the face of international condemnation and sanctions, foreign intervention is a distinct possibility.

At the end of the day, all three scenarios are realistic. Much depends now on what happens on the ground in Syria. Once that becomes clearer, all eyes will turn to gauge the reaction of the neighboring countries and of the international community.

Author: Radwan Ziadeh (rm)
Editor: Michael Knigge