The State Of Syria: Civil War Or Vicious Stalemate?

Jan 26, 2012
Originally published on January 31, 2012 10:00 am

One thing that's certain about the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad is that there is nothing romantic about it.

Unlike Egypt, there's no Tahrir Square filled with hundreds of thousands of people calling for democracy. Unlike Libya, there's no Mad Max warriors in the desert fighting a dictator with guns they've welded to the backs of their pickup trucks.

Instead, grim news seeps out piecemeal from unofficial sources. Most of the reports are little more than body counts, with most of the fatalities blamed on the Syrian security forces.

The Syrian government has largely barred the international media. Analysts in the region say that since the uprising began last March, the Syrian regime has managed to keep the violence just low enough to keep the story from bursting onto the international stage.

But that doesn't mean the situation has been getting less violent. In fact, it seems to be getting worse as the protest movement remains steadfast in its call for the ouster of Assad.

Assad's government continues to crack down on protesters. But now soldiers are defecting from the Syrian army and fighting on behalf of the protesters. More and more, the conflict is at risk of turning into something that no one wants — a civil war.

Assad's Vow To Crush Enemies

Last month, the Arab League decided to send a group of observers to Syria as part of a peace plan. But that hasn't worked. Activists say hundreds more people were killed, even while the observers were there.

Assad then made one of his few speeches in recent months. But he did not offer any real concessions or reforms, and instead vowed to crush his enemies with an iron fist.

The Arab League mission was looking doomed. Then, earlier this week, the Arab League, which is based in Cairo, came up with a new plan. It calls for Assad to transfer power to a deputy who would oversee a national unity government. Parliamentary elections would follow.

The Syrian regime immediately rejected the plan. Assad, it appeared, is nowhere near stepping down.

Salvaging Arab League Plan

But analysts note that Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, initially took the same position in his country. It took months of protests, which turned violent, before he finally handed power to his vice president. Now, Saleh is heading to the U.S. for medical treatment. Some believe it was his quiet exit from power.

Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says there are two reasons the Arab League plan for Syria might actually be useful.

"One is that it's on the table. So if in a few of months the regime is really in trouble, they have a fallback option ... rather than utter collapse they can say, 'Well, let's discuss something middle of the road' and save parts of the regime or parts of themselves," Salem says.

That's what Saleh did in Yemen.

Secondly, Salem says he thinks it helps undermine the Syrian regime's propaganda, which is "that there is no middle way, this is a conspiracy, the Arabs are out to get us, and we have to fight. Here, the Arabs say, 'No, we're not out to get you, we're proposing a very reasonable way forward that actually saves you."

It could also save the country from all-out war.

A Role For The U.N.?

Now, diplomats from Arab countries and Europe, the U.S. and Turkey are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution that uses this Arab League plan as a framework.

While that might sound like more paper-pushing that would fail to stop the violence, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group says it's the right next step.

"The only way to convince this regime it's about time to negotiate and not simply to talk about possible reforms is to have a consensus within the international community," says Harling, who is based in Damascus.

Up to now, the Assad regime has been bolstered by the fact that Russia threatens to veto a Security Council resolution critical of Syria.

Harling says the time has come for Arabs and the West to draft a resolution the Russians can accept — a resolution that would write off any possibility of a Libya-style intervention — but one that still blames the Syrian regime for the crisis.

"And that approach would be extremely welcome in terms of forcing the regime to realize it cannot just forge ahead with its current course of action that will lead the country towards disaster," he says.

U.N. officials say such a resolution could be voted on as early as next week.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Call it war; call it political stalemate - whatever you call it, the situation in Syria is getting worse by the day. After more than 10 months, the protest movement remains steadfast in its call for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Assad's government has been equally steadfast, cracking down violently on protesters. Caught in the middle: Soldiers from the Syrian army have begun defecting and fighting for the opposition.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports now on the latest international efforts to stop the violence and force political change.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: One thing that's for sure about the Syrian uprising is that there's nothing romantic about it. There's no Tahrir Square filled with hundreds of thousands of people; no Mad Max dudes in the desert, fighting Moammar Gadhafi with guns they've welded to the backs of their pickup trucks.

Instead, to get an idea of what the Syrian uprising is like, day in and day out, you only have to check my NPR colleague Ahmed al-Omran's Twitter feed.

AHMED AL-OMRAN: (Reading) Video shows a little girl who was reportedly wounded when security forces attacked. ... Graphic: Video shows a man who was shot in both legs in...

MCEVERS: If it sounds disconnected and surreal, that's because it is. Analysts here in the region say since the uprising began last March, the Syrian regime has been expert at keeping the violence just low enough that the story doesn't burst onto the international stage.

AL-OMRAN: (Reading) Heartbreaking - 2-year-old boy crying after he was reportedly shot...

MCEVERS: But that doesn't mean the situation isn't getting more and more violent, and more and more at risk of turning into something that no one wants: a civil war.

Last month, the Arab League decided to send a group of observers to Syria, as part of a peace plan to slow the regime's brutal crackdown on protesters. But that didn't work. Activists say hundreds more people were killed, even while the observers were there.

But then, earlier this week, the Cairo-based league came up with a new plan. It calls for Assad to transfer power to a deputy who would oversee a national unity government, and parliamentary elections would follow.

The Syrian regime immediately rejected the plan. Assad is nowhere near stepping down. But neither, analysts say, was the president of Yemen at first. It took months of a massive uprising, that was also turning violent, in his country before he finally handed power to his vice president. Just this week, he traveled to the U.S. for medical treatment. Some believe it was his quiet exit from power.

Paul Salem heads the Carnegie Center for Middle East Peace here in Beirut. He says there are two reasons the Arab League plan for Syria might actually be useful.

DR. PAUL SALEM: One is that it's on the table, such that if the regime in a few of months really is in trouble, they have a fall-back option, which rather than utter collapse, they can say well, let's discuss something middle of the road, and save parts of the regime - or parts of themselves.

MCEVERS: Like the former president of Yemen did.

SALEM: Secondly, I think it helps undermine the regime's propaganda, which is that there is no middle way. You know, this is a conspiracy and the Arabs are out to get us; we have to fight. Here the Arabs saying no, we're not out to get you; we're proposing a very reasonable way forward that actually saves you.

MCEVERS: And saves your country from all-out war. Now, diplomats from Arab countries and Europe, the U.S. and Turkey are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution that uses this Arab League plan as a framework.

While that might sound like more paper-pushing that would fail to stop the violence on the ground, Peter Harling, of the International Crisis Group, says it's the right next step.

PETER HARLING: The only way to convince this regime that it's about time to negotiate, and not simply to talk about possible reforms, is to have a consensus within the international community.

MCEVERS: Up to now, the Assad regime has been bolstered by the fact that Russia threatens to veto a Security Council resolution on Syria. Harling says the time has come for Arabs and the West to draft a resolution the Russians can accept; a resolution that would write off any possibility of a Libya-style intervention, but one that still blames the Syrian regime for the crisis.

HARLING: And that approach would be extremely welcome, in terms of forcing the regime to realize that it cannot just forge ahead with its current course of action that will lead the country into disaster.

MCEVERS: U.N. officials say the resolution could be voted on as early as next week.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.