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A pro-Syrian regime protester waves the Syrian flag
Image: dapd

Syrian quagmire

July 21, 2012

Revolution has rocked Syria for more than a year, but where is the struggle heading? DW takes a look at the opposition groups' makeup and goals as the deadly confict continues.


Syrian ruler Bashar Assad's opponents have many social and political grievances. Above all, they are frustrated with the lack of democracy in their country. The People's Republic of Syria is in fact a family dynasty.

Hafez Assad came to power in a military coup in 1970. When he died in 2000, he son Bashar took over the business of running the country. He was completely unopposed. During a so-called "Damascus Spring" near the beginning of Bashar Assad's rule, he initially showed willingness to reform. But he soon reverted to form, setting up a security apparatus to help him implement increasing political repression.

Who supports Assad?

Assad's power is based on 12 different intelligence services. Like his father, he filled key political and military posts with relatives and fellow members of Syria's Alawite minority. Alawites are also influential in the Syrian economy.

Assad also relies on Sunni Muslim and Christian elites. They have benefits from an economic modernization program initiated by Assad. At the same time, violence and economic decline have prompted an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the ruler's former followers to turn away from him since the revolution's outbreak.

Syrian President Bashar Assad
Assad looks poised to fight till the bitter endImage: AP

Syrian inflation has skyrocketed from 4.4 percent in 2010 to 12.4 percent this year. Simultaneously, Syria went from posting annual economic growth of 3.2 percent to a contraction of 5.9 percent the following year. With the fate of Assad's regimen ever less secure, more and more of his followers are openly thinking of making a clean break.

The opposition's organization

At the outset of the revolution, numerous opposition groups worked independently. In August 2011, they gathered in Ankara, Turkey to form the Syrian National Council (SNC), claiming to represent about 80 percent of the opposition. That figure can hardly paint an accurate picture, though.

The SNC encompasses groups ranging from the religious Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, inspired by Kurdish organizations, to secular "local coordination committees." The SNC's declaration of principles calls for peaceful conduct by the Syrian revolution and takes a stand against outside intervention. Still, the SNC's spokesman says the principle of non-violence is not easy to implement.

The second biggest Syrian opposition alliance is the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC). It is made up of 15 mostly left-leaning groups, several Kurdish organizations, and independent activists. Unlike the SNC, the NCC is based within Syria. Also unlike the SNC, the NCC has been willing to engage in dialogue with Assad's government. However, the NCC's spokesman said that the regime has used dialogue all too often as a delay tactic.

Members of the Free Syrian Army are seen deployed in Homs
Syrian opposition groups claim to be open to all religions and ethnicitiesImage: Reuters

Both opposition alliances are demanding Assad's troops stand down and that he dissolve his government. Those are their current preconditions for talks with the regime.

Independent of the SNC and NCC, Syria has many other opposition groups. These include various Islamic organizations that have helped destabilize the country. Their wish is to replace Assad's regime with a conservative Sunni government akin to Saudi Arabia's.

Recruiting tactics

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed in August 2011 as the armed wing of the opposition. It consists of deserters from the regular Syrian army along with embattled civilians. The FSA claims to have 60,000 members in its ranks, a claim that cannot be verified.

At the start, the FSA was poorly equipped. But buying weapons on the black market and receiving secret shipments from sympathetic countries has expanded and improved the FSA's arsenal. The organization took responsibility for Wednesday's attack on the Syrian security service's headquarters in which several high-ranking members of the Assad regime were killed.

The attack's main effect was arguably a psychological one. By showing the depth and reach of the FSA's connections, regime members no longer know who they can trust.

In terms of pure military strength, the FSA is still much weaker than the heavily armed Syrian army. However, by engaging the regular army in small battles across the country, the FSA has succeeded in dividing up Assad's forces.

A Syrian army tank in Damascus
The Syrian army has used heavy weapons in its crackdownImage: dapd

The FSA's greatest strength is found in the cities, where they can engage in guerrilla warfare. The rebels have pressed through the capital city of Damascus for several days. The regular army has since launched a major counteroffensive. No clear outcome to the struggle has come on the horizon.

In recent days, the FSA gained control of part of the Syrian border with Iraq, including an important stretch of highway used for trade between Baghdad and Syria.

The FSA has also taken control of two regular army posts along Syria's border with Turkey. Still, the military superiority of Assad's army against the FSA's guerrilla tactics are a recipe for a long war of attrition.

Religions and ethnic lines

Syria is home to a number of faiths and ethnicities. Of Syria's nearly 21 million citizens, about two-thirds are Sunni Muslims of various races. Twelve percent are Shiite Alawites, while 10 percent are Christians. In ethnic terms, almost 80 percent of Syrians are Arabs. People of Kurdish descent account for about 10 percent of the population. Syria also has Circassians, Turkmen and Armenians, along with 500,000 Palestinians and 200,000 Iraqis.

Assad has worked to exploit these religions and ethnic lines. While many key posts have gone to fellow Alawites, Sunni and Christian minorities have also gained positions within the regime.

Protests in Syria have had a mostly social and political color. But Syria's ethnic and religious fragmentation has also affected the course of the revolution. Thus, parts of the country's Christian minority have stayed on Assad's side. They see him as the only guarantor of their safety. Alawites, meanwhile, fear revenge from Sunnis if Assad falls.

Syrian refugees are seen crossing the Lebanese border post at Al Masnaa
Refugees have flooded neighboring countriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Both sides have attacked each other. The two main opposition groups, however, oppose the trend. Both the SNC and NCC emphasize their openness to all Syrians, regardless of religion and ethnicity, in their statues. Nevertheless, the groups cannot stop ethnic and religiously motivated violence completely.

Casualties of revolution

According to the London-based Center for Strategic Research and Communications (SRCC), nearly 20,500 Syrians have lost their lives since the start of the revolution. The same source has reported 212,000 Syrians arrested for political reasons and 65,000 missing. Meanwhile, SRCC said more than 100,000 Syrians have emigrated to neighboring countries and more than 1 million have fled their homes to escape the violence.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported lower figures during the struggle, citing 11,000 deaths. The United Nations says there have been about 8,000 deaths since March of this year.

Assad's regime has barely let any observers and journalists into the country. Even UN staff cannot move freely there. Journalists have been allowed in small numbers, making verification of both government and opposition reports extremely difficult.

Peaceful resolution?

Is there still a chance for a peaceful solution to the conflict? For more than a year, the Assad government has not hesitated to use fearsome violence against its own people. Its crackdown has included the use of heavy weapons and torture centers spread across the country. The opposition itself has reportedly resorted to serious violence and human rights violations.

After 18 months of unabated violence, it is difficult to see Assad surviving. The simplest solution could be for him and his government to step down from power - a measure Assad has firmly rejected. That means the conflict is likely to escalate even further.

Multiethnic, multi-religious Syria risks dissolving along sectarian and ideological lines. Only new negotiations can prevent this outcome. But the failed mission former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has shown just how low the chances are that negotiations will succeed. The way things stand today, Syria appears on the track to a long and gruelling civil war.

Author: Kersten Knipp / srs
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg

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