On February 26, 2012, the Syrian Arab Republic held a referendum to adopt a new constitution that is reasonably democratic. It was proposed that the president be chosen in a general election (previously this was done through a referendum), that his time in office be limited to two terms, that the transfer of power by inheritance the prohibited, and that the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party surrender its monopoly on power. In addition, the new constitution will stipulate that only be a Muslim who has attained the age of 40 can be president.
According to Syria’s leadership, passage of the referendum will make it possible to form a national unity government in March in order to prepare for the parliamentary elections scheduled for the second half of May. President Bashar Assad said the coalition of political parties that received the majority of votes will form a new government.
It would appear that this approach should receive the support of all political forces, both inside and outside the country. In actuality, that did not happen. The moderate opposition inside Syria partially supported the referendum. For example, the Party of the Popular Will, which is headed by the Popular Front for Freedom and Change, called the referendum “a starting point on the way out of the protracted crisis.”
The government was supported by Christians and proponents of a secular state system. They have been alarmed by the trend toward Islamization of the country. The president’s religion was less of a concern than the requirement for the legal, ethical and religious norms of Islam (Sharia) at the legislative level in Syria, a country inhabited by Sunnis, Alawites, Shias, Druze and Christians.
The opposition Patriotic Coalition for Democratic Change urged people to boycott the referendum. According to its supporters, “cosmetic changes do not eliminate the problems that caused the crisis.” That political party’s idea that it would be a good idea to weaken Syria’s presidency looks even more dubious. Anarchy and full-scale civil war would likely result.
The domestic Syrian opposition’s problem is not that the government can rig parliamentary (or presidential) elections to avoid the possibility of losing power through democratic means. The opposition does not have the support of a majority of the population, and the West is trying to ignore that. According to some estimates, only 35-40% of Syrians are willing to support it, and not all of them agree with the use of armed methods of struggle. The fragmented nature of the opposition means the situation inside Syria is such that it is virtually impossible to transfer power to it by peaceful means. The relatively few radicals belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood understand that most clearly. They tried to derail the constitutional referendum. Thanks to the concerted efforts of the army and security forces, which have achieved some successes recently, such actions were largely blocked.
Sensing the strong support of the West and Persian Gulf countries, the external opposition represented by the Syrian National Council is becoming increasingly aggressive. Artificially exaggerating the number of casualties among its supporters (by counting both opponents and supporters of the current government, as well as members of government security agencies), its representatives are openly demanding foreign intervention to overthrow President Assad by force. However, that immediately gives rise to a logical question: Who would take part?
The Gulf states actually have no army capable of conducting offensive military operations. Their armed forces are designed more for suppressing domestic unrest, as shown by the lack of universal military conscription, for example. This was most clearly evident in 1990 and 1991 when the Saudi Army was unable to defend either its own territory or its ally Kuwait. As a result, it was forced to resort to large-scale military-political cooperation with the United States and other NATO countries, which significantly limited the independence of its national armed forces. Given the significant domestic instability in the Persian Gulf countries, it is virtually impossible for them to employ their military units outside their own territory.
These countries can expand their information war, increase financial support for the radical opposition operating in Syria, organize a continual supply of weapons and trained militants, and boost political and economic pressure on Syria by the regional organizations they control, including the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. That can seriously destabilize Syria, but clearly not enough to change its current government. Of course, their actions are not prompted by concern for Syrians or a desire for democracy, which their own countries lack. It is more important to limit the influence on the Middle East of their main enemy in the Muslim world — Shiite Iran.
Israel has its own interests in Syria, and they are not limited to the issue of returning the occupied Golan Heights. After ties between Damascus and the Palestinian Hamas movement weakened, the Israelis evidently acquired a new goal — elimination of the Lebanese Hezbollah logistics bases in Syria with the help of the radical opposition. As a result, more and more Israeli small arms began popping up among the Syrian radicals. Of course, it is hard to believe there could be large-scale cooperation between, for example, Israel’s Mossad foreign intelligence service and the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist movement. However, a limited partnership is entirely possible because both want to overthrow the Assad government.
There is currently no reason for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to intervene militarily on the side of the radical opposition in Syria. That is why Israel has repeatedly said that the issue has no direct bearing on Tel Aviv. It will be a different matter if Syria plunges into the abyss of a full-scale civil war. Given the circumstances, the IDF could intervene, not in Syria but in Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah’s infrastructure. Israeli missile and air strikes on specific Syrian targets to weaken Hezbollah are of course possible.
Turkey has the most powerful military in the Middle East. It supports the Syrian opposition and, at first glance, it is the country most likely to invade its southern neighbor. The capture of about 100 Turkish officers on Syrian territory should confirm that. In actuality, however, everything is not that simple. Turkey would benefit if the government in Damascus is weakened because that would enhance Ankara’s role in the region. But the Turks will be totally against more influence for the Persian Gulf countries, with which its cooperation on Syria is tactical in nature. As a result, Turkey continues supplying Syria with 232 million kWh of electricity and is keeping its border with the country open.
Another reason for restraint is that Ankara fears exacerbating the Kurdish problem (Syria is home to about 2 million Kurds). In addition, the Turkish government does not want to damage relations with its important political and economic partners — Russia and Iran, which oppose any military intervention.
The European countries most active in the Middle East are France and Great Britain. With their special operations force units in Lebanon and Iraq, they are having a direct impact on the situation in Syria, not by engaging directly in the fighting, including instructors in the Free Syrian Army, but by training the militants that are so necessary to the radical opposition. Without US support, these countries are unlikely to intervene militarily in Syrian affairs, primarily for economic reasons and for lack of resources.
The United States is the only country that can actually change the government in Damascus by force of arms. How much they need that is another question, given the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the decline in US influence in the Middle East (and North Africa) as a whole and no lack of economic problems. Clearly, a war in Syria would be no cakewalk for them, even considering the disparity in their military capabilities.
Iran would likely meet its obligations as an ally by coming to Syria’s aid, as evidenced by the presence of two Iranian warships at the naval base in Tartus. After US troops withdrew from Iraq, it essentially became a corridor through which Iranian soldiers (or volunteers should the United States occupy Syria) could enter the country.
Let us further analyze some of the implications of a “democratic” method of regime change in Damascus such as a US intervention along the lines of the “Yugoslav” (continuous air strikes) or the “Iraq” (ground operation) scenarios.
First, Syria has large stockpiles of chemical weapons (up to 1000 bombs and about 100 short range ballistic missile warheads) in the form of sarin (a nerve gas agent) and mustard (a blister agent). Airstrikes on those targets would inevitably result in contamination of the surrounding terrain. Not only would these well-defended sites have to be captured by US special operations forces, the chemical weapons would have to be transported outside the country. It is entirely possible that at least some of the chemical munitions would disappear. If a ground operation is conducted, missiles could be used to deliver chemical weapons against American forces.
Second, Syria is a multinational state. In addition to Syrian Arabs and Kurds, it has populations of Armenians, Circassians and Turkmens, as well as large numbers of refugees from Iraq and Palestine. Military intervention on the side of the radical opposition (which the moderate opposition opposes) would inevitably exacerbate interethnic relations, and that could spread the armed conflict to all of the surrounding states. This would create a real threat for the United States’ only ally in the region — Israel.
Third, the Christian community in Syria is a close-knit force. It could rebuff the Muslim Brotherhood strongly if it needs to. The Russian Orthodox Church would support it in every way possible. It would demand that the Russian leadership come to the defense of its Christian brothers and the Russian-speaking population living there (of which there are about 140,000, according to some estimates).
Thus, the West is trying implement a “democratic” scenario in Syria, meaning it is assisting the opposition on an increasingly large-scale in order to overthrow the Assad government. If it succeeds, however, it will not be the moderate opposition that takes power but the radical opposition in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that would be contrary to the interests of every country except Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So does the West need to get involved? Would it not be wiser to support the Syrian government in its goal of establishing a true democracy and forgo the idea of changing it, especially by force? That, evidently, would be the optimum course for the entire international community to take.
Vladimir Evseev is the Director of the Russian Center for Social and Political Studies.
Source: New Eastern Outlook