In Syria, Echoes of the Conflict in Yugoslavia

Andrew Kirkby is our guest author today. He is an M.A Candidate in Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He also holds an M.A in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut. In addition to living in Israel and Lebanon, he has also traveled through the Middle East, the Former Yugoslavia and the Former Soviet Union. Previously, Kirkby worked at the Center of Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at AUB. He will be interning at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv this Fall.

If there was an obituary for the Annan plan it would read:

The Annan plan was an idealistic attempt to mediate a conflict with a regime that possessed a mentality that browbeating its opponents into submission was its only option. Because of Russian and Chinese intransigence in the Security Council, the Assad regime was shielded from any consequence for not abiding by the plan, thus predetermining its demise. In its short life, the Annan plan was cynically manipulated as a means to buy time by the Syrian government and its patrons, China and Russia. If the Annan plan has taught us anything, it is that conducting polite diplomacy against the backdrop of mass violence is bound to fail just like previous attempts in Bosnia and Rwanda.

As the Syrian crisis approaches its eighteenth month, a new reality is beginning to take hold. The Syrian government is looking less like a government and more like a powerful sectarian militia. According to a recent International Crisis Group report:

“[The Regime] is mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate. Opposition gains terrify Alawites, who stand more firmly by the regime’s side. Defections solidify the ranks of those who remain loyal. Territorial losses can be dismissed for sake of concentrating on “useful” geographical areas. Sanctions give rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling ensure self-sufficiency and over which punitive measures have virtually no bearing. That the regime has been weakened is incontrovertible. But it has been weakened in ways that strengthen its staying power.”

For this reason it is increasingly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad with fall like other Arab despots, such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Assad and his Alawite-dominated regime formulated two military options from the beginning of this crisis. Option one was to crush the uprising and reassert totalitarian control; Option two, the contingency plan, was to withdraw to the Alawite mountains and coast, where they are a majority, and carve up a secure enclave. In light of troop withdrawals from large swaths of eastern Syria and the Golan, the regime’s inability to crush the opposition, and intense fighting in cities such as Aleppo and Homs, it appears the more sinister contingency plan is starting to take shape.

An appropriate historical model to view military developments in Syria is that of Yugoslav People’s Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija or JNA). During the course of the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992, the JNA morphed into the Bosnian Serb Army and the Serbian-Montenegrin Army. This was driven by the fact that Federal control over the JNA was asserted from Belgrade, which was dominated by the Serbian ethno-nationalist Slobodan Milosevic after 1989. It was from Belgrade that Milosevic, in January 1992, issued the secret order instructing the General Staff to transfer all Bosnian Serb JNA troops back to their native Bosnia while withdrawing all Serbian troops back to Serbia. (By this point in the conflict most troops from the other Republics had deserted.)

In doing so, Milosevic set the groundwork for the future Serbian Army and Bosnian Serb Army (Army of Republika Srpska or VRS). In May 1992, the JNA withdrew from Bosnia and dissolved itself. The JNA’s huge military arsenal fell into the hands of Serbia and its Serbian allies in Bosnia. As a result, Bosnian Serbs vastly outgunned their Bosnian Muslim and Croat opponents. After three bloody years and numerous atrocities committed by VRS—including the massacre at Srebrenica and the Siege of Sarajevo—NATO finally stepped in and defanged the Bosnian Serbs in Operation Deliberate Force, thus pressuring their patron Milosevic to sign the Dayton Accords, ending the long conflict.

Although the Syrian Army has yet to withdraw to the Alawite region and become an Alawite Army, events on the ground are driving it in that direction. Up to this point in the conflict most defectors have been Sunnis; experts say that virtually none of the 80,000 young men—mostly Sunni—expected to show up for mandatory military service this year have responded. As a result, the regime, out of fear of arming potential opponents, has not deployed ordinary units. Rather, it has relied almost exclusively on elite Alawite units such as the Republican Guard’s Fourth Armored Division and the four main intelligence services. (The Republican Guard and Fourth Armored Division are both commanded by Maher al-Assad, the President’s brother, and have a combined strength of 60,000; the intelligence services have an estimated 150,000 members.) These units also control Syria’s huge chemical weapons arsenal—believed to be one of the largest stockpiles in the world. According to Akil Hashem, a former Syrian tank commander: “When the military gets new weapons like a new tank, it goes immediately to the Fourth Division and the Republican Guards. This is the main force the regime depends on to end the revolution. It is not likely to have defections in these units.”

Serving, as an auxiliary unit for the official government forces, have been the ruthlessly loyal—however unofficial—Shabiha, reportedly commanded by Namir, Fawwaz and Munzir al-Assad, all members of the Assad clan. The supposed motto of the Shabiha is, “Bashar, do not be sad: you have men who drink blood.” Similar to the notorious Tiger paramilitary of the Yugoslav wars, which often recruited soccer hooligans, Shabiha recruits tend to possess brute strength, low intelligence and blind allegiance. The Shabiha’s use by the Assad regime also resembles Arkan’s Tigers during the Yugoslav wars. Their unofficial status as “armed gangs” offered both governments plausible deniability in cases of ethnic cleansing. Tactically speaking, the Shabiha, like the Tigers, have committed their worst attacks often after large government artillery barrages. Examples include Houla and Al-Qubeir.

The increased use of paramilitary forces such as the Shabiha is also reminiscent of the Yugoslav conflict in that sanctions and war gave rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling thrived. In such economies, groups such as the Shabiha or Arkan’s Tigers, which operate unofficially and have criminal histories, are empowered. Syria only needs to look to its neighbor Lebanon to see how a protracted conflict can criminalize an economy and empower militia warlords who, in turn, further perpetuate the violence for economic gain. The longer this conflict continues the more powerful such groups will become. It is often said that kings make wars. However, it can also be said that wars make kings. In the case of Serbia, the Yugoslav wars elevated Zeljko Raznatovic (aka Arkan), the commander of the Tigers, to a level rivaling only Milosevic himself.

If analysts view recent developments through the prism of securing an Alawite enclave, a new picture of the conflict begins to emerge. The extreme violence inflicted on cities along the Aleppo-Damascus highway—in Hama, Rastan, Homs, Haffeh, Talbiseh and Houla—can be seen as an attempt to drive Sunnis east of the Orontes River in order to create a strategic buffer zone for a future Alawite statelet. (It has been reported that up to 600,000 Sunnis have fled Homs.) Moreover, the strategic abandonment of large swaths of land—in eastern Syria, Kurdish areas in the north, the Golan and a number of border crossings—can be seen as a way for the regime to augment its forces elsewhere.

Although Damascus and Aleppo are outside the traditionally Alawite regions, they are geographically significant for the regime. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and main commercial hub, is vital. If the rebels are able to take Aleppo, they could link up with the rebel-held Idlib province, thus creating a significant “safe haven” along the Turkish border. Aleppo, like Benghazi in Libya, could also serve as a seat for an alternative government. And lastly, Aleppo’s economic significance will be critical to Syria’s future  no matter who runs the country.

According to Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, “[the regime] will contract. Maybe first towards Damascus, and then perhaps to the coast.” Damascus is vital for the regime in that any public announcement of a withdrawal to the coast would be a clear admission of defeat, in a struggle that Assad is determined to win at any cost. Also it is important because it is the seat of government in Syria. Currently, Maher al-Assad and his elite Fourth Division are tasked with protecting the capital. The Assad regime (under Hafiz and Bashar) has also for years lured Alawites to settle in Damascus. Aash al-Woro and Mezzah 86 are two predominantly Alawite neighborhoods. Mezzah 86, which is on the western edge of Damascus, is home to many members of the security forces and the ruthless Shabiha, for example.

The future of any independent Alawite state is questionable. It would not be economically viable; the main commercial hubs are outside the Alawite region and Syria’s oilfields are located in the northeast. Most important, however, is the fact that all regional players as well as the international powers—Russia, China and the U.S.—are against the Balkanization of Syria. Russia and Syria’s neighbors, which have restless minorities also, would loathe the emergence of independent sectarian states. The withdrawal of government troops from most of the Syrian Kurdish region and their subsequent replacement by Kurdish groups—including Syria’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—has alarmed Turkey. Because of the regional consequences, a wholesale partition of Syria into independent states is unlikely.

Although it is unlikely that Syria will completely disintegrate, it’s equally improbable that any new government will be able to assert the same level of authority as Assad. Because of the presence of numerically large but geographically compact minorities (e.g. Druze in the As-Suwayda Governorate, Alawites in the Latakia and Tartus Governorate, Kurds in Al-Hasakah Governorate, etc.) and the tactics employed by the regime to create a rift between those minorities and the Sunni majority, a future Syria will likely be decentralized.

The Kurds will surely want a larger role in a new Syria and will probably push for regional autonomy like their ethnic brethren in Iraq. Relative to their position before the conflict—lack of citizenship, the neglecting of Kurdish education and restrictions on opening a business—the Kurds could ultimately be the biggest winner in this conflict.

The Druze are another important minority. Because they tend to accommodate themselves to the status quo, they could serve as a bell-weather for the direction of the country. What ultimately happens to the Druze in Syria will also be of great interest to Israel. Most of the Druze living in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, have refused Israeli citizenship and still identify themselves as Syrians. As a result, the future Syrian government’s treatment of the Druze could also impact relations between the Druze of the Golan and the Israeli government. For example, a less inclusive Sunni Islamist government in Damascus could actually lead to the Golani Druze to accept Israeli rule.

It is highly unlikely, if the regime loses Damascus, that it and its Alawite supporters will relinquish control over the elite military units. Although many people are banking on a palace coup to end the bloodshed, this result is doubtful. Even if Assad were to be killed in a palace coup, anyone who would be able to conduct such an operation would probably be Alawite too. In a statement made last week on CBS, King Abdullah of Jordan said, “If he [Bashar al-Assad] does go, by whatever means, I don’t see that the system around him is capable of changing.”

So if the regime loses Damascus, I believe it will reconstitute itself—with or without Bashar—in an Alawite enclave, where it could demand a role in a new Syria or be subject to a prolonged siege that only the international community could break. Although we have yet to witness large troop moments to Alawite territory, there are reports of Iranian armaments going to the Alawite Mountains. Hundreds of thousands of Alawites have reportedly moved back to the relative safety of the Tartous and Latakia Governorates.

Ultimately, the Assad regime will lose control of Damascus. However, because of the growing sectarian nature of the conflict and the regime’s “divide and rule” tactics, a future Syria will likely see a weak central government with strong autonomous regions. It could look a lot like Iraq or Bosnia.


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