Syria at the Brink

invitation only · Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 25.01.2012 15:00 - 17:00
  • invitation only

invitation only

With the failure of the Arab League Observer mission to calm rising tensions in Syria, the prospects
for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis seem to be receding. In light of these developments,
the seminar seeks to take a fresh look at the possible options ahead for Syria. It will evaluate
the internal dynamics driving the current unrest and consider the regional implications and role
of external players in the crisis. Has an international intervention become inevitable to prevent
Syria from sinking into civil war? And what are the regional and international implications of
Syria’s deepening instability?

Magnus Norell, Senior Research fellow, Swedish Institute of International Affairs

Ari Kerkkänen, Director, The Finnish Institute in the Middle East

Comments: Hanna Ojanen, Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Chair: Timo Behr, Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs 

Summary of the seminar:

Dr. Timo Behr opened the seminar and welcomed the speakers. Needless to say the reason to hold a seminar on Syria today is probably clear to all. Now that it has become clear that the Arab league mission has failed, there seem to be two options for the future: a further militarization of the conflict or an international intervention to the conflict. There are no clear views on what will happen and thus it is extremely interesting to hear from eminent speakers, who know the region very well, how they view the current situation and what they see as possible ways out of this stalemate.

Dr. Ari Kerkkänen, the director of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East, began his presentation by presenting maps of the region and by taking a look back at the development of the Syrian conflict. It is important to look at what has actually occurred during the past 10 months and what have been the main reasons and events leading to the current situation. At this point it is already important to note, that there are in fact more than two possible future scenarios. Dr. Kerkkänen said that he is slightly optimistic and wants to believe that even though it is not possible to find a peaceful way out of the situation it is still possible to find a way which does not significantly increase violence.

Syria is in a civil war since approximately Ramadan, i.e. more or less August 2011. Calling the current situation a civil war might seem exaggerated to some, but we know that there are several different types of civil war and this is most certainly one form of it.

It is important to realize that Syria is a very heterogeneous country if we look at the number of different religions, tribes and simply regional differences that exist. This is also one of the reasons why it is difficult to say what or who started the events that led to the current situation. The first event that we can pinpoint is the demonstrations in the town of Dara’a in March 2011, which followed after the arrest of some students who had written graffiti on a wall (stating “the people want the regime to fall”). At the same time the regime was conducting a narrative of its own (namely that there was an armed terrorism conspiracy from abroad that was operating in Syria). People on the streets began demanding reforms. It is important to note that at this point they did not ask for a change of regime but simply a change in the way the country was led. The demonstrations also occurred mostly during the weekends and were relatively non-violent. The second noteworthy event occurred in early June in the city of Jisr ash-Shugur (near the Turkish border), when the Syrian security forces attacked the city after protests had occurred there. According to Dr. Kerkkänen it was among others this event that led to armed anti-regime activity and an uptake in daily protests which subsequently spread to several different parts of the country. During this same period the opposition forces began to group together with the result that in September two different opposition fronts were formed: The Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Committee (NCC). After Ramadan the demonstrations greatly increased in number and size and people started to demand a regime change. This is when, according to Dr. Kerkkänen, we can say that the popular uprisings turned into a civil war. This has also been highlighted by the number of people killed in the protests after August and the fact that there are clearly two opposing sides in the struggle. In September and October the city of Homs became the center of activity.

However, as we know there is no clear information on how many people have been killed or injured during the uprising. Dr. Kerkkänen said that the main reason why it is still so difficult to get information on what is happening, even if you are on the ground, is that Syria is still an extremely closed society. It is important to note that what initially triggered the current events was trivial in nature. There was a general need for reforms but as the regime’s response to the protests was so strong, people started to demand a regime change. An interesting thing to note is what sanctions have led to. Syria, where criminality was previously not a problem, has suffered from increased criminality after EU and US sanctions were put in place.

According to Dr. Kerkkänen a problem of the opposition forces in Syria is that they are not united. The SNC and the NCC have opposing views when it comes to big questions such as dialogue with the regime and foreign intervention. The Istanbul based SNC does not want to discuss with the current regime, they want a military intervention and they support the actions of armed groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Damascus-based NCC is opposed to international intervention. This creates several problems and also leads to there not being a clear picture of what the support inside Syria is for these two opposition groups. According to Dr. Kerkkänen the Syrian regime still has significant support from the population and thus there seems to be no clear way out of the stalemate.

The second speaker Dr. Magnus Norell, senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, was more pessimistic about the situation in Syria and did not foresee a change in the near future. He was afraid that the situation would slide to a more violent phase. He believes that the only change could come if there was a UN Security Council resolution on Syria. Events in Syria have reached a stalemate. The opposition will not fade away and they will not be beaten down by the regime. However, the regime will “tough things up” because they still have significant power.

According to Dr. Norell, if something were to change in Syria (i.e. a regime change) this would be a real game changer compared to what has occurred in other countries during the Arab spring. Namely, a change in Syria could affect the power structures in the whole region. Today Syria is backed up by Iran and by Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as by Russia and China. A new regime would most likely withdraw its support from Hezbollah and thus this would create a significant political change in the region.

Dr. Norell said that the first concrete effect of the Syrian conflict on the region is the rise in the number of Syrian refugees in e.g. Jordan and Lebanon. Without a US/EU intervention nothing will happen. The idea put forth by Qatar to have an Arab intervention is not likely to occur. If the developments inside Syria made Russia realize that a change is needed and there was a UN led intervention, what the international community would aim for is a humanitarian intervention (i.e. a no-fly humanitarian zone close to the Turkish border). However, if you want to have a change sooner rather than later the humanitarian intervention needs to be implemented without a UN resolution. This is clearly a very long shot, but according to Dr. Norell if we really want things to occur, we need to think about solutions outside the UN Security Council. It is clear for the time being that the Russians still put their money on president Bashar al-Assad and neither the opposition nor the government is strong enough to push each other out, so no change is in sight. It also seems that it will be easier to convince China to change its mind rather than Russia.

Dr. Norell argued that the Arab League mission was largely a failure. Even though the mandate has been prolonged it will not bring a change to the situation. The members of the mission will continue reporting etc. but this is not the same as a real intervention. What we need at least from the EU and the US is creative thinking in how to change the stalemate. Dr. Norell stated that if the EU and the US do not do anything about the Syrian situation, it will continue to haunt them for a long time and thus they really should push for a humanitarian intervention. We have seen that economic sanctions may work up to a certain point, but they cannot in this case kill the regime. Dr. Norell concluded by saying that as Dr. Kerkkänen mentioned there still is support for the Syrian regime but it is not because of love for al-Assad, but rather of fear of what the alternative would be.

These presentations were followed by a short comment speech by Dr. Hanna Ojanen from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. She felt that it is interesting to analyze what the international community can do and who the international community is and are there perhaps several international communities. Turkey is clearly one of the international actors who can be interesting. The relationship between Turkey and Syria also brings the conflict to the EU’s neighborhood and makes it more important from an EU perspective.

Syria is a very difficult case for Turkey for historical reasons and the relationship between the two countries has often been strained. Some sources of conflict have been water disputes as well as Syria’s support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization. The events of 2011 made Turkey choose sides as carefully as possible. The country has received thousands of “guests” i.e. refugees from Syria. Turkey’s leaders have said that al-Assad should resign. Turkey has also imposed sanctions (in particular trade and travel restrictions), which target the regime and not the population.

What has been the impact of Turkey’s actions and what more could Turkey do? This question is linked to Turkey’s relationship with Iran. Turkey has close trade relations with Iran and thus does not want to damage these. Turkey wants to become a local interlocutor. The core value of the new Turkish foreign policy line is independence. However, Turkey cannot act alone and it does not want to be seen as a proxy for someone else’s goals. Turkey is thus caught in a dilemma between image and actions.

During the Q&A session the speakers were asked among others about the options of the US, EU and the UN, how a humanitarian intervention would work and what role for example Iran and Israel will play?

The speakers disagreed slightly on the usefulness of creating a humanitarian zone. Dr. Kerkkänen believes that there cannot be a humanitarian zone without military intervention. He also stated that a humanitarian zone would help only a part of the population since Syria is a large country. In fact this solution might lead to more deaths rather than a positive solution. He said that he understands the will to create humanitarian corridors, but that this has nothing to do with the protection of civilians.

Dr. Norell pointed out that if you want to squeeze the regime you can do that also by imposing proper sanctions on Iran. This has in fact been done, but the effects will only materialize after a while. Hezbollah has lost some of its possibilities to get arms from Iran and they are thus more dependent on getting them from other places. Thus sanctions would also affect them. Therefore, sanctions on Iran could really affect the situation not only in Syria but also in Lebanon.

Dr. Kerkkänen highlighted the sectarian dimension of the civil war, even though clearly this is a war between the people and the regime. About 70% of the population are Sunnis, 10% Alawites and 10% Christians. Christians and Alawites are supporters of the current regime as well as the Sunni business elite, since the present regime has brought them stability during the past years. Thus there is clear support for the regime.

As regards the role of Israel the speakers agreed that the Israelis are playing a very cautious game when it comes to Syria. The situation is similar in the US, probably due to the fact that it is an election year. Even though both Israel and US would not cry if al-Assad disappeared they are not actively doing anything to change the situation. The US would do something before the elections only if the UN does something.

Both speakers concluded by saying that everybody has something at stake in the Middle East. For example the Arab League is not only concerned about the number of people killed in Syria, they are interested in what the Syrian conflict can mean for the whole region.