The Syrian Civil War began with President Bashir Al-Assad’s oppression of peaceful protestors calling for democratic reform as a part of the greater Arab Spring movement. When soldiers of the Syrian Army refused to fire upon protestors, the soldiers were summarily executed on the grounds of insubordination. This created a rift in the military precipitating mass defection. The defectors organized a revolutionary movement, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and became the primary opposition to the Al-Assad Regime. Despite the recent intervention in Libya, the United Nations has failed to achieve a consensus within the Security Council authorizing military support in Syria due to the strong ties from Damascus to Moscow and Beijing. The FSA has been waging an insurgency campaign against the Al-Assad regime since September 2011 that has left the likelihood of a decisive military victory for either side unlikely without external intervention in support of the revolutionaries or a regime change as a part of internal political reform of the Syrian government. This posting explores the options available from the perspective of President Al-Assad as the head of the Syrian government in deciding his policy concerning the civil war.
Option #1: Pursue Military Victory over the Rebels
The war in Syria is divided along sectarian lines with support on both sides thoroughly entrenched in mutual opposition. The FSA is trained, organized and equipped to carry out a protracted insurgency campaign against the Syrian government. Counter insurgency warfare is a tough business whose victory is not decided in terms of territory seized, equipment destroyed, and casualties inflicted, but rather by assertion of the proponents’ authority to govern over the insurgents without violent rebellion by the latter. A counter insurgency campaign on the part of the Al-Assad regime will require the Syrian government to rethink how it qualifies a military victory. If no concessions are made on behalf of the Syrian government with respect to the calls for democratic reform, then violent suppression of the insurgency will become a way of life.
Funding a domestic counter-insurgency war is difficult with an economy like Syria’s. Heavily dependent on revenue generated from oil production and taxes on remittances from Syrian nationals, the Syrian government has been hit hard by trade embargos from the west that have blocked its oil exports to Europe and caused inflation to skyrocket. External aid packages from Russia, China, and Iran have not been able to make up for the tanking Syrian economy, which has forced the Al-Assad regime to liquidate its treasury reserves. For President Al-Assad to continue suppressing the insurgency without making any major concessions to mollify the violence his regime will have to generate revenues internally without reliance on international trade. Raising taxes and slashing popular social welfare programs like fuel subsidies are the types of policies that would enable the regime to decrease its budgetary deficit and continue funding the counter insurgency campaign but would further alienate the Syrian people. This track will be very difficult to sustain over the long-term.
Option #2: Attempt to Broker a Cease-Fire through an external mediator
A cease-fire agreement could be brokered between the FSA and the Al-Assad regime. A cessation of violence would likely come at a steep price in the form of political concessions that will be difficult to appease opposition groups without President Al-Assad’s resignation. The most recent cease-fire agreement which was mediated by the UN in April fell apart completely by June. The regime’s history of corruption and doublespeak will make it difficult to garner the level of trust required to convince the FSA to lay down its arms.
President Al-Assad’s resignation and representative democratic elections are the principal political goals sought by the opposition forces. However any relinquishment of power by Al-Assad places not only his political future at stake but also his life. The Arab Spring has not been kind to former rulers. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi’s fate was death at the hands of rebel forces following his overthrow and capture. Regime change in Egypt cost President Mubarak life in prison on charges of murder. Al-Assad would likely face similar charges stemming from his authorization to violently suppress protestors. One of President Al-Assad’s biggest priorities in negotiations should be immunity from prosecution for himself and members of his regime. This would incur considerable concessions before a deal including this stipulation becomes politically palatable to the opposition. The opposition may not be willing to guarantee any immunity, without which political negotiations equate to suicide for President Al-Assad.
Option #3: Surrender to the Rebels and Seek Political Asylum outside of Syria
Although the Syrian government has had a great deal of difficulty in its efforts to eradicate the FSA, the Syrian military is too strong and too large to be conventionally defeated by the opposition forces without external assistance. As long as the Syrian government can maintain its relative advantage in military power over the rebels, surrender will not be necessary. However, if external forces intervene on behalf of the FSA, or if the Al-Assad Regime is unable to continue funding its military due to impending fiscal collapse, surrender to the rebels must be considered while the regime still has some sort of leverage it can apply to bargain for their lives. The Syrian stockpile of short range ballistic missiles equipped with chemical warheads will be a powerful bargaining chip but the threat of their use should be reserved as a last resort. Weapons of mass destruction and their use are not taken lightly by the international community, and if Al-Assad brandishes his chemical weapons it could invite unilateral action in the form of targeted destruction of these weapons from a third party nation.
If the situation becomes untenable for the Al-Assad Regime, he must be prepared to seek political asylum outside of Syria in the interest of self-preservation. The most likely destination would be Iran, a country with whom the Al-Assad regime is closely allied and would be well insulated from political pressure to extradite Al-Assad for any sort of prosecution. Al-Assad should make arrangements for a discreet extraction plan from Syria along with enough cash to sustain himself for the remainder of his years in exile. Alternate locations for Asylum should be considered as well, possibly Russia or China, as part of a comprehensive contingency plan.