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The Battle of Damascus? Not Quite Yet

The news this morning is of fighting in the suburbs of Damascus as army deserters and activists fight Syrian troops loyal to the regime.

Early in the Syrian crisis we wrote that the fall of the regime would not happen until the government lost control of the streets of Syria’s two major cities: the commercial center of Aleppo and Damascus itself.  That’s another way of saying that in addition to Alawite and other minorities, the Assad family has been supported by Sunni elite traders and industrialists — whether out of loyalty or fear is another question.  Until these groups desert the Assads, Syria’s government may have only the support of a minority of perhaps 30% of the population, but that could be enough to survive.

Worsening economic conditions and tighter sanctions have no doubt convinced many of the elite backers of the regime that the Assad family is increasingly bad for business, but fear of retaliation and lingering uncertainty about the outcome of the crisis means that the final collapse of the regime’s support has not happened yet.

For now, we seem stuck in a pattern.  The opposition is hoping to build its strength (probably getting arms and support from foreign friends) while giving the government two choices.  It can do nothing, in which case demonstrators and opponents gradually take over more of the country as government power ebbs, or it can crack down on opponents, triggering greater pressure for outside intervention as the humanitarian disaster unfolds.

The opposition seems to think it can outbleed the government: people are angry enough and hopeful enough to be willing to die in large enough numbers that world outrage will finally drive Assad from power. Among other things, the growing impact of Sunni religious support for the opposition in Syria and abroad is helping to sustain the willingness of the opposition to fight and die.

We shall see.  The odds are tipping toward the opposition as foreign support gradually grows. And strong Gulf backing for the opposition speaks to the Sunni commercial elite in Syria who understand the importance of Gulf riches for their own future prospects. But splits in the international coalition are deep; thanks to France’s new Armenian genocide law, for example, Turkey and France (the two NATO countries most deeply concerned) are not exactly best friends. UN backing, thanks to Russian opposition, is nowhere in view for armed intervention; this means that unless the opposition can tip the military balance without outside help, NATO (ie the US and Turkey) and the Arab League have to agree on a course of action.

The fighting in the suburbs of Damascus suggests that the opposition is becoming a bigger threat and that the Sunni masses and clergy are increasingly ready to fight and die for regime change.  But the regime still has enough support to keep shooting.

A squalid regime confronts a headless opposition in an increasingly polarized and violent society in a volatile part of the world.  Ugly, messy, sad.

The biggest factor pushing the regime toward extinction: For the Gulf states, it makes sense to keep pushing Assad. Not only does the war against Assad push Iran, it tends to put the conservative Sunni monarchies on the right side of public opinion in the Sunni Arab world. It makes the emirs, sheiks, princes and kings of the petrostates look like defenders of Arab freedom, and it tends to turn the focus of the Arab Spring from politics (where the Gulf states can’t win) to Sunni religious identity where the monarchies are strong. The royal houses of the Gulf sit more securely on their thrones if they work to push Assad off of his.

That calculation is more likely to doom Assad at this point than any other single factor at work in the crisis.

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  • Kris

    The Battle of Damascus?

    “Damascus Is Burning?”

  • Trent Telenko

    Sadly, we seem set for an 1921 Anatolia style population swap between Syria and Iraq with the Alwaites and Sunni playing the Greeks and Turks.

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