After Gaddafi, What Next for Syria?

21/10/2011 10:02 BST | Updated 20/12/2011 10:12 GMT

The death toll continues to rise in Syria where nearly seven months of violence has led to the deaths of over 3,000 civilians. The UN Security Council, hit by a double veto from China and Russia earlier in the month, are divided and powerless. Ban Ki-Moon told reporters in Switzerland this week that 'this killing must stop. Immediately,' but has failed in the past even to get hold of Assad on the telephone.

Meanwhile the Arab League, famous for providing much needed regional cover for the NATO operations in Libya, is also split between those countries who argue that Assad has lost his legitimacy, led by Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and those such as Yemen and Algeria who believe that the President is the best candidate to lead a reform process in the country.

The embattled Assad has offered a shopping list of 'carrots' to appease the protestors ranging from ending the emergency law, citizenship for thousands of stateless Kurds, reformed media and political party laws, replacing the parliament, drafting a new constitution and bizarrely guaranteeing the right to peaceful protest. The use of simultaneous 'sticks', including the deployment of tanks and snipers, armed militias, mass arrests and -- according to Amnesty International and other human rights organisations -- lethal torture, has led many in the country to reject his promises as false intentions, claiming that the regime is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that its forty-one year rule of the country is maintained.

Yet the battle to end the protests has so far been unsuccessful and, despite the heavy death toll, people are still putting themselves in the firing line to demonstrate against the regime.

Crucially however, the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, home to some 50 percent of the country's 22.5 million population, have been largely quiet. Although the cities have been flooded with security forces it remains difficult for outside observers to ascertain whether Syria's silent majority favour the uncertainties of the post-Assad era over the devil they know. As Marwa Daoudy recently wrote, 'the situation has now reached a stalemate. Neither side appears to be able to defeat the other.'

So is Syria trapped in a bloody inertia? Can the regime survive or will pressure from both inside and outside the country see Assad join Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi as another casualty of the Arab Spring?

Multilateralism Can Be Effective

The first point to make is that although multilateralism has failed so far that does not mean it won't find its voice in the future. Indeed as the death toll increases the regime may discover that its backers at the UN and in the Arab League find it impossible to maintain their defence of its actions.

A senior Russian official has come out and said that the current Russian support for Syria is not a 'blank cheque'. Meanwhile the Arab League could yet play a role. The League's stated purpose is to strengthen ties among the member states, coordinate their policies, and promote their common interests. Although the Arab Spring is far from dying down it is inevitable that the changes throughout the region will force a re-evaluation of the common interests of the member states, who will find that democratic accountability will mean a myriad of new demands from their populations.

I was maybe a bit harsh when I described the League as 'not fit for purpose' on Al Jazeera this week, the true test will come after the 15-day deadline on the Syrian government to stop its operations against anti-government protesters expires.

Economic Pressures

As clashes continue, the Syrian economy continues to nosedive. A new report by Geopolicity revealed that the Arab uprisings had cost the region $50bn with Egypt, Syria and Libya having paid the highest financial price. Yet Mohammed Jleilati, Syria's finance minister, claims that Syria has $18 billion in foreign currency reserves and could secure all of its imports for two years 'if not a single other dollar came.' However there can be little doubt that the Syrian economy is struggling to breathe under the constrictions that have been placed upon it. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted last month that Syria's economy would contract 2 percent this year, altering the 3 percent growth forecast it issued in April. The Syrian government is in the process of transferring millions out of accounts in Jordanian banks, having restricted the amount of foreign currency people can purchase and banned the import of goods with a tariff of more than 5 percent (except 51 items including raw materials and grain), which has led to a rise in the price of a huge range of products. The Guardian has also reported that workers at the Central Bank of Syria have been asked to 'contribute' about £6.50 per month from their salary to fund the government.

Meanwhile tourism, worth an estimated £5 billion a year, has entirely collapsed as the rising death toll has scared tourists away from what was previously a rapidly flourishing destination. In addition, sources in the shipping industry say that the volume of shipping in the ports of Tartus and Latakia declined by 35 to 40 percent in the first eight months of 2011. Overall the economic situation is bleak, but as Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), explained 'Syria is a relatively wealthy country so it will take some time for a real deterioration in people's living standards.' Doyle spoke of the more immediate concern of besieged cities such as Hama, Dera'a and Homs, which have been under intermittent attack since the protests began.

The Spectre of Civil War

Former-EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana described the Syrian opposition's formation of a 'Syrian National Council' (SNC) in October as the 'most important step yet taken by the fragmented forces that have been trying since May to lead a peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime'. The opposition, faced with the difficult task of uniting disparate factions inside and outside the country, could play an important interlocutor role that could better engage global institutions.

However while the SNC has endorsed the peaceful and non-violent nature of the protests there are increasing reports of people taking up arms against the regime, a development that could signal the transition from civil strife to civil war. Indeed, United Nations high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay has said that Syria risked 'a full-blown civil war' unless the international community took action.

Since the start of the protests the regime has regularly blamed armed 'terrorists' acting on a 'foreign agenda' for the deaths, claiming that over 1,100 security officers have been killed. Any observer of Syrian state news will see regular reports of arms caches discovered, the President visiting wounded soldiers or captured 'terrorists' confessing their crimes.

Last week the state-run Lebanese National News Agency reported that Lebanese soldiers uncovered a cache of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades hidden inside a van driving towards Syria. Where were these weapons destined for? A new player on the scene is the Syrian Free Army, whose defecting soldiers have been fighting loyal regime forces in the city of Rastan. Little is known about this group led by Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad but their emergence is evidence of the difference in approaches to overthrowing the regime adopted by the various opposition groups.

The continued loyalty and actions of the Syrian security forces will remain a key barometer of future events in Syria. In Tunisia and Egypt the military essentially abandoned the top echelons of the regimes in the face of public protest. In Libya and to some extent Yemen, the loyalty of large parts of the security forces led to the breakout of civil war and, in the case of Libya, a soaring death toll (over 10,000).

Unless the international community proves that it has the stomach to agree on the need to halt Syria's current bloodshed they may find themselves with the far harder task of managing the consequence of a civil war in future. Such a conflict will certainly have a range of knock-on effects and will raise real questions over state collapse, sectarianism and prolonged instability. To prevent such a disastrous tomorrow the world must come together to demand an end to violence today.

James Denselow is a Director of the independent research institution the 'New Diplomacy Platform'