Syria - War Without End

By Alex

10 January 2013

As the Syrian conflict continues into 2013 NLP's Alex Doherty spoke to international security expert Paul Rogers.

The imminent demise of the Assad regime has been prophesied on numerous occasions since the uprising began in March 2011. However, in spite of the increasing capabilities and successes of rebel forces, Assad remains in power. Do you think the regime is facing defeat in the near term? Or would you expect the conflict to continue (assuming the capabilities of both sides do not change dramatically)?

I doubt that it is facing defeat in the short-term since it retains support of its core security elements and there are significant communities (business, Christian etc.) who greatly fear the consequences of the regime's demise while not supporting it strongly. The indications are that most Syrians neither support the regime nor support the opposition but fear a worse aftermath if the regime falls.  In recent months, atrocities by rebel elements have lost them much support, as has the systematic looting that has been a feature of many of the areas under rebel control.   The regime's actions have been appalling but one of the grim aspects of civil wars is that they frequently witness degenerative behaviour by both sides that can even exceed interstate war.  Things could change quickly in Syria, partly depending on the continuing extent of Russian support for the regime, but the regime could still be in power for much of this year and possibly even longer.

There has been much discussion about the regime's chemical weapons stocks; the possibility of the regime using them, or the danger of them falling into the hands of the hands of Islamist insurgents. What are Syria's chemical capabilities and what is your assessment of the danger of their use in the Syrian conflict or of the Syrian military losing control of the weapons?

Syria developed CW to counter Israeli WMD and probably has up to 1,000 tonnes, mainly Mustard and Sarin (similar to the French arsenal during the Cold War but tiny compared with the US and the USSR which were both 30,000 tonnes plus).  There is some danger of the regime using CW in extremis but senior officials are aware that it would mark the end of the regime.  CW is not that easy to handle and its use is much more limited than people assume.  In the chaos of any sudden regime collapse there would be a risk of CW movement into radical paramilitary groups but they would require high levels of competence to handle it.  Even so, any prospect of that would probably involve NATO/Israeli intervention specific to countering it.

To what extent is Syria now a proxy war? How significant have the actions of the United States, Russia, the GCC states and others been regarding the conflict?

The complication is that it is that rarity - a double proxy.  At one level it is Saudi Arabia/Iran and at another it is US/Russia.  This double proxy hugely complicates Brahimi's mediation efforts and helps explain his visits to Tehran.  It also means that any negotiated settlement has to involve this wider dimension.  The regional proxy element is deep-rooted and much of the Saudi attitude relates to its concerns over increased Iranian influence in western Gulf states.  From Riyadh's perspective it has to control a fractious Shi'a minority, mainly in the oil-rich eastern region of the Kingdom, and also has to aid the Bahraini authorities in suppressing dissent there.   Most of all, it is concerned with the power of the Shi'a-dominated  Malaki government in Baghdad and its close links with Tehran.  The Saudis see a substantially increased Iranian influence in spite of the considerable imapct of sanctions.  Supporting the rebels in Syria is a major aspect of constraining Iranian influence in the wider region.

In relation to Russia, Putin's government is still bitter about the western use of a humanitarian UNSC motion to form the basis for ousting Gaddafi and it takes the wider view that external regime termination is a bad trend.  It also has its own major Sunni-orientated Islamist problems, most notably the Caucasus Emirate, the basis of an insurgency that has involved over 2,000 violent incidents since 2007 and the killing of over 1,000 state officials.  For Russia, a Sunni-dominated post-Assad Syria with a strong Islamist element is not in its interests.

How important is the Islamist component of the insurgency? What has driven the increasing leadership role of these elements?

Insignificant at the start but much more so now, and forms one of the reasons for the lack of really major western support for the rebels - how else to explain the failure to provide MANPADs and other needed weapons to the rebels? One of the ironies of recent months has been the presence of CIA personnel in southern Turkey trying to make sure that weapons and support go to "good rebels" and not "bad rebels".   Apart from motivation, one reason for the increased Islamist leadership is simply competence - hardly surprising given that some of them gained combat experience against well-trained and very well-equipped US soldiers and Marines in Iraq in the mid-2000s.  Blowback doesn't come any more direct than this!

Do you think a negotiated end to the conflict is desirable given that such a solution would likely entail the partial survival of the regime?

Yes, it is still desirable - the alternative is even more suffering, quite possibly in the long term.  The problem is that in spite of recent rebel advances the reality is one of stalemate.  It tends to be forgotten that often when rebels over-run a regime base they do not have the organised military power to garrison it.  Rebel "advances" tend therefore to be less sustained than seems to be the case

How likely do you think direct intervention by the Western powers or by Israel is at this stage of the conflict?

Unlikely except in the case of CW mentioned above, and the more the Islamist influence rises the less likely are western states (and Israel) to intervene on the side of the rebels.   The Obama adminsitration is deeply conflicted in policy terms between intervention and non-intervention because of the Islamist issue and this has increased with the steady rise of this influence among the rebels.   It is, though, just possible that a sudden major change in regime vulnerability (e.g. assassination of Assad) might mean immediate intervention.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers



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