CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – Syria’s uprising against President Bashar Assad, which began peacefully in Damascus a year ago, has become increasingly brutal and splintered. As the death toll nears 9,000, calls for international intervention have increased — but what worked in places like Libya won’t necessarily succeed in Syria.
The country’s political and military elites have always been secretive about their power and how they make important decisions, leading to several misconceptions about the regime. Let’s dispel some myths about Syria and its upheaval.
1. President Bashar Assad’s departure would end the violence.
International efforts to stop the violence in Syria have focused on forcing Assad to step down. But even if he did, there would be no change in the government’s policy of crushing the Free Syrian Army’s activities and demonstrations with force.
Surrounding the president is a tightly knit group of military and security officials, mostly from the Alawite minority, who have grown enormously wealthy over the past two to three decades, beginning under the rule of Assad’s father, Hafez Assad.
In regime circles, especially among the older men who were close associates of his father, Bashar Assad is seen as a figurehead with some credibility among parts of the Syrian population. But he is easily replaceable by someone much tougher and even more committed to repression and facing down international condemnation.
2. It’s hard for outsiders to really know what’s going on in Syria.
As with any regime that has been in power for decades, Syria’s ways of dealing with dissent are well-known, beginning with the partial destruction of the town of Hama in 1982 to eliminate the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rebels.
So when the present revolt broke out a year ago, there could be little doubt that Assad, his close family and his Alawite advisers would respond in more or less the same way, blaming the uprising on a few foreign-inspired malcontents, controlling the media and using loyal army units to try to crush the opposition.
But today, unlike in 1982, it has proved much more difficult to hide what is going on. Personal testimony, such as Syrians’ telephone calls to relatives abroad, graphic videos and cellphone images, and whispered conversations with the few foreign journalists and Arab League investigators whom the Assad regime has allowed in — in an effort to persuade the outside world that all is well — the rebels have presented a picture of brutal crackdowns and repression.
Not only are the country’s long borders impossible to seal off, but the Internet makes it virtually impossible to prevent news from getting out.
The tactics being used in Homs — shutting off electricity, seizing parts of the city, going house to house to arrest young men, and terrorizing the few remaining inhabitants — are desperate signs of weakness from a regime that can think of no other way to prevent news of its crimes from spreading.
3. Syria is headed for civil war.
The Assad regime, President Barack Obama’s administration and the West are constantly predicting a civil war. But the country is already in one. Cities such as Homs and Hama have become split into regime-friendly and regime-hostile quarters, with residents often forced to move in search of protection.
Meanwhile, on a larger scale, there is plenty of evidence of sharp divisions, some of them militarized, within the larger sectarian communities such as the Alawites, the Christians and the Kurds.
Many families are split between regime critics and supporters, each heavily invested in rival discourses about who is to blame. The result, as seen in other major civil wars such as in Lebanon or Bosnia, is a degree of violence and hatred between fellow citizens, an atmosphere of kill or be killed — with an intensity that often surpasses that in conventional wars between nations.
Reluctance to call Syria’s uprising a civil war largely comes from those advocating international intervention. For if a conflict is recognized as a civil one, it is much harder to persuade outside nations to get involved because of the danger that such a conflict will spill over into neighboring states.
4. Libya’s regime change is a model.
Libya is being invoked as an example: outside intervention that would start with pressure to allow humanitarian aid, followed by the establishment of secure corridors to be guarded, perhaps, by foreign planes operating no-fly zones. However, the Assad government is well aware of such aims and is prepared to counter them.
For one thing, it is a much more cohesive regime than that of Moammar Gadhafi and has much more popular support. For another, with its loyal brigades of largely Alawite troops and its pervasive network of informers, thugs and intelligence operatives, it has been preparing to confront an internal threat for decades.
5. The international community has to do something to stop the violence.
Daily news reports and images on social networks of the destruction of Syrian cities, and of the systematic torture and killing of thousands of people, are almost impossible for Western governments and international human rights organizations to ignore. But then so, too, are the problems of doing anything immediate to halt the violence.
As the recent history of such interventions demonstrates, the desire to put an end to what are regarded as the evil policies of an evil regime can easily cause politicians to neglect the other side of the balance sheet: the number of civilian lives that will undoubtedly be lost in the attempt to save them. Think, for example, of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have been widowed since the Russian invasion some 30 years ago.
It’s better, as the Obama administration is doing, to undertake a more long-term strategy of isolating the Assad regime with punitive sanctions designed to cripple the Syrian economy, coupled with travel warnings and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement that Assad fits the definition of a war criminal.
Roger Owen, the author of the forthcoming book “The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life,” is the A.J. Meyer professor of Middle East history at Harvard University.