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    Middle East
     Jul 13, 2012

Syria intrigue points to palace coup
Victor Kotsev

Bashar al-Assad is flexing his military muscles to a background of two high-ranking political defections and ever-more ominous threats from the United States. The Syrian president remains adamant that his people support him: so much can be gleaned from a number of interviews he gave over the past week, scoring a sharp increase in his media activity.

Assad's words have found some implicit support in the behavior of the United Nations envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, who first announced over the weekend that his efforts to negotiate a truce have failed, only to backtrack days later and say that talks between him and Assad on Monday were "constructive and candid".

Annan, who visited Iran after Damascus, also said recently that


Russia and Iran must participate in a solution of the Syrian crisis, further raising eyebrows in the West. His flip-flops were mirrored by a spectacular pirouette of Russian diplomacy: the Kremlin first announced that it would not sell any new arms to the Syrian regime, as if to back Annan's earlier claims that its position had changed dramatically, [1] and subsequently ostensibly backpaddled. On Tuesday, it sent a flotilla of warships to the Mediterranean (with the implicit suggestion that they are there to protect Syria from an international intervention), and on Wednesday it tabled its own draft resolution at the UN Security Council, which fell far short of Western demands.

The Russian draft called for an extension of the UN observer mission in Syria, which is largely confined to its hotels at present, and changing its mandate to help negotiate a political solution to the conflict. It avoided any mention of Chapter VII of the UN charter, which can authorize further sanctions or a military operation in the country. According to most analysts (and in the words of a diplomat at the Security Council cited by al-Jazeera), the draft fails to provide for "real pressure on the parties".

Meanwhile, as the death toll climbs (the latest estimates claim that over 17,000 have died, including more than 4,000 from the security services of the regime), the Syrian regime is becoming increasingly unstable. The most recent defections - the Syrian ambassador in Iraq and a Sunni general from a key family - may not, by themselves, bring about Assad's end, but they are the most senior defections so far and portend worse to come.

In particular, Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, who escaped to France via Turkey last week, has been hailed as the possible next Syrian leader by elements of the Syrian opposition. While his family has been one of closest and most influential Sunni allies of the regime for decades - his father, a long-standing former defense minister, helped to cement the Assad clan's rule - his hands are clean of the current bloodshed, which may soften the distrust of many rebels.

Moreover, it seems that he still has at least basic comport with the regime - otherwise it is hard to imagine that he would have been able to leave undisturbed, and to smuggle his family out as well. As an anonymous acquaintance of his poignantly put it (in a report that could not be verified), "Nobody stopped him from leaving and nobody worked on him to stay."

Tlas's defection fits in neatly with the feverish diplomatic and military intrigue surrounding Syria. It also highlights another important dynamic within the Syrian regime that could raise the likelihood of a coup in the near future. Several unconfirmed reports in the past have claimed that a cohort of senior generals, particularly Sunni Muslims, were forcefully retired in the past year as a way of papering over their criticism of the regime. According to the BBC, Tlas himself had been confined to house arrest since last May. [2]

This would leave a pool of disgruntled generals, each of whom could step in for Assad in the future. It is not entirely unlikely even that the Syrian president orchestrated this situation consciously, with a view of the possibility that he may not be able to stay in power indefinitely.

The American-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor has long argued that all foreign powers involved in the Syrian crisis - including the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Russia - have been looking for a suitable replacement for Assad (regardless of what they say publicly). While this is in the realm of speculation at present, it is not impossible that the heavy Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria - not to mention the Western buildup on its borders - will eventually increase pressure on Assad to step down in favor of a compromise candidate.

We can call it the Egyptian scenario, in which the military bear hug of friendly nations helps orchestrate a (soft?) coup against the dictator. The parallel is imperfect: in Syria, for example, the sectarian civil war has progressed quite some way and it is hard to imagine that any action will bring even a modicum of stability in the near future. For now, moreover, Assad is still strong enough, despite the defections, to continue to cling on to power.

Over the next weeks and months, however, as the Syrian regime weakens under pressure from the foreign-backed rebels, Assad's position will grow increasingly untenable, and his Russian and Iranian backers will also be forced to cut their losses. The specter of chaos looms: this is, perhaps, what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to when she said last week that "The sooner there can be an end to the violence and a beginning of a political transition process, not only will fewer people die, but there is a chance to save the Syrian state from a catastrophic assault that would be very dangerous not only to Syria but to the region."

In a recent analysis, Stratfor writes:
''As one astute observer of the Syrian conflict explained, the al Assad regime is like a melting block of ice. The Alawite core of the block is frozen intact because the minorities fear the consequences of losing power to a Sunni majority. We have not yet seen the mass defections and breakdown in command and control within the military that would suggest that large chunks of this block are breaking off. But the Sunni patronage networks around that core that keep the state machinery running are slowly starting to melt. The more this block melts, the more fragile it becomes and the more likely we are to see cracks form closer and closer to the center. At that point, the al Assad regime will become highly prone to a palace coup scenario.''
In the same article, Stratfor analyses the regional implications of the Syrian intrigue:
'Thus, the regional campaign against Iran is unlikely to end in Syria. Should Sunnis gain the upper hand in Syria, the Shiite-led bloc in Lebanon (led by Hezbollah and its allies) will likely lose its dominant status. Turkish, Saudi and Qatari backing for Sunnis in the Levant and the rise of Islamists in the Arab states will be focused on creating a more formidable bulwark against Iran and its Arab Shiite allies.

The most important battleground to watch in this regard will be Iraq. There are a number of regional stakeholders who are not satisfied with Baghdad's Iranian-backed Shiite government. There also likely will be a healthy Sunni militant flow to draw from the Syrian crisis. These militants will not only need to be kept occupied so that they do not return home to cause trouble, but they can also serve a strategic purpose in reviving the campaign of marginalized Sunnis against Shiite domination. Iran may feel comfortable in Iraq now, but the domino effect from Syria could place Iran back on the defensive in Iraq, which has the potential to re-emerge as the main arena for the broader Arab Sunni versus Persian Shiite struggle for regional influence. These trends will take time to develop, and the pace of Sunni empowerment in Syria remains in question, especially as the Alawite core of the regime is so far enduring. That said, it doesn't hurt to look ahead.' [3]
It seems, for now, that despite the saber-rattling, the West and the Middle Eastern powers seeking Assad's replacement will confine themselves to covert operations and support for the rebels. However, since a complete descent of Syria into chaos would likely necessitate a Bosnia-style military intervention anyway - and a more active involvement in Assad's overthrow would help the West accomplish its geopolitical objectives in the region, such as isolating Iran - a debate is raging at all levels of the US political establishment over whether an overt military operation in the near future may not be advisable.

As Brian Fishman observes in an article published by Foreign Policy magazine, "both conservative and liberal voices in the United States now favor military intervention in Syria. There is indeed a striking synergy between the United States' strategic and humanitarian goals in Syria, [4] either of which could potentially motivate military action."

Fishman argues that, at present, the United States is unlikely to be able to accomplish its strategic objectives in Syria. While many, if not most, analysts concur - and this explains the restraint so far - Clinton's threatening remarks underscore that, if the big powers fail to reach a compromise, a military operation may soon become the preferred option.

1. 'Shift' in Russia, China positions on Syria: AnnanAgence France-Presse, July 3, 2012.
2. Manaf Tlas: Syrian regime 'taking country to Hell', BBC, July 6, 2012.
3. Considering a Sunni Regime in Syria, Stratfor, July 10, 2012.
4. Syria, where you don't always get what you want, Foreign Policy, July 10, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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