US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Crisis in Syria Nears Breaking Point

in Program

By Mona Yacoubian – As
President Obama prepares to meet with his Russian counterpart today on the
sidelines of the G-20 summit, sharply escalating violence in Syria could signal
that the conflict is spiraling out control. Citing intensified fighting on both
sides, the United Nations decided to suspend its observer mission, plunging the
UN-sponsored Annan peace plan into further jeopardy. Although the Syrian
government can still brutally repress an increasingly armed opposition,
numerous indicators suggest the regime may be losing its grip on power. At the
same time, while unconfirmed reports of increased funding and weapons flows to
Syrian rebel groups indicate they may pose a greater threat to the regime, they
remain unable to inflict a decisive blow. With Syria teetering on the abyss of
all-out civil war, the Syrian crisis has reached a make-or-break moment for a
diplomatic resolution.

Increasingly,
it appears that the 16-month long uprising is morphing into a sectarian civil
war with dangerous spillover into neighboring countries. Over the past month a
spate of mass killings of Sunni civilians by Alawite paramilitary groups known
as shabiha marks a distinct turning
point in the crisis. In particular, the expanding scale and pace of sectarian
massacres, notably the killing of more than 100 civilians including nearly 50
children last month in Houla, underscores the deepening sectarian cast to the
violence.  More recently, the Syrian
government claimed it had “cleansed” the Sunni village of al-Haffeh, located in
a predominantly Alawite mountainous enclave, of “armed terrorists,” the government’s
term for the armed opposition. A June 14th suicide bombing that
damaged a major Shiite shrine in southern Damascus may also have sectarian
overtones.

Syria’s
violence has also spilled over its borders into neighboring Lebanon, which has
witnessed the most significant outbreak of sectarian unrest in four years,
encompassing both Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. Lebanon’s population
is deeply divided over Syria, with most Sunnis supporting the Syrian
opposition, while Shiites and Alawites favor the regime.  The issue has exacerbated pre-existing sectarian
tensions, widening the rifts between these volatile segments of population. Adding
to the tensions, a group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were abducted in northern
Syria last month, prompting violent protests in Beirut’s Shiite southern
suburbs. The hostages have yet to be returned to Lebanon, and has raised fears
of greater unrest should they be killed.

The
Syrian government continues to rely on brutal tactics to repress its opponents.
Government forces have renewed heavy shelling of Homs, considered the Syrian
uprising’s epicenter. While the opposition has long accused the government of
using helicopter gunships, United Nations monitors recently confirmed the use
of helicopters in government operations, marking another escalation in the regime’s
tactics. At the same time, the use of helicopters, as well as an increased
reliance on the shabiha may be a sign
of government weakness.  These tactics
could suggest that the regime is less able to rely on ground forces which have
been stretched increasingly thin and reportedly plagued by an increase in
desertions and defections.

Aside
from this apparent fraying of government forces, other key indicators suggest
the regime’s hold on power may be diminishing significantly.  Rebel groups have reportedly had greater
success in denying the regime control over significant swathes of territory
across Syria – another reason the government may be forced to rely more on
helicopters. The regime is now embroiled in fierce battles in several regions
across the country, including in eastern Syria that, until recently, had been
relatively quiet. 

Equally
notable, violence has moved beyond Damascus’s outer suburbs to more close-in
neighborhoods near the city’s center. In addition, Damascene merchants-formerly
supporters of the regime-recently launched a week-long strike to protest the
regime’s involvement in the Houla massacre. 
While the business elite have grumbled quietly about the regime for
months, the strike is the first overt and significant indicator of their waning
support. If confirmed, recent reports of a business strike in Aleppo would
spell a further erosion of regime control. Economic sanctions have added to the
sense of desperation, including a recent report alleging that the Syrian
government has resorted to printing money in order to pay public sector
salaries and other expenses. 

With
all this, the Syrian conflict may have reached its most opportune moment for
diplomacy.  While Russia, a key supporter
of the Syrian regime, has vacillated between statements of displeasure and
support for the regime, Moscow may well be viewing developments inside Syria
with mounting concern. Russia’s decision to send two ships to the Syrian port
of Tartus signals Moscow’s deepening anxiety over the deteriorating security
situation. Syria’s descent into a sectarian civil war would be inimical to
Russian interests.  Moscow would lose its
last significant ally in the Arab world, along with billions of dollars in
military and business investments. 
Perhaps more alarming for Moscow, the opening of a Sunni jihadist battleground
in the Levant could result in significant blowback among its own jihadist
opposition elements, constituting a domestic security threat for Russia.

Syria
will no doubt figure prominently in President Obama’s talks with Russian
President Putin.  The United States and
Russia remain at odds on Syria, but both sides share an interest in preventing
Syria’s unraveling. Both leaders should seize on this critical moment in the
Syrian crisis to forge a diplomatic solution. A proposal to hold an
international conference on Syria in Geneva at the end of this month appears to
be gaining momentum and could serve as the venue for building broad-based
international consensus on Syria. 
Syria’s conflict has reached a decisive moment of reckoning.  As Syria verges on the brink of a wide scale
civil war or regime collapse, the timing for a concerted diplomatic effort to
force Assad to step aside is now-before Syria passes a point of no return. 


Photo Credit: JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages via Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom/7161216492/

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