Monday, October 10, 2005

Why a Coup in Syria is Unlikely

I recieved this note from someone who signed himself "A Syrian dissident."

About Volker Perthes article “Endgame in Syria”

It is really a wonderful article from someone that seems to know and understand very well the Syrian situation. And, accordingly, a man that knows what he is talking about.

On this concern, as a Syrian intellectual and as a dissident, I allow myself to disagree with your comments and estimations my dear Joshua. And here are my reasons:

1 – Because if a normal change should be, it has to “come from within “. And, so that to avoid any disintegration of the state, it should be done by those who did really control the main keys of the power means the army and the mukhabarat. And those are, let’s say it frankly, the Alaouit sect. Which means logically that the Alaouits should lead the change. And this Idea is not not a dream in my opinion nor an utopia or a wish. But, a real potential and maybe the lonely real possibility to make such a “peaceful” change. Because, in addition to the reasons stated by Mr. V. Perthes…

2 – It is very well known that all the Alaouits are not pro-regime, but many of them are anti and their feelings are with this group or that of the opposition like those who are still and till now sympathizing with (Assad old rival) Salah Jedid, or those who still have links with the Arab Socialist Hurani tendency, or those of the Communist Working League, or even and especially those who are independent and pro-liberal like Aref Dalila. A very wide spectrum that can even include at a certain time those who are still pro Rifaat. This is why…

3 – The Assad regime, although it try to give the impression that most of the Alaouits are behind him; is very anxious from the situation on the ground within the community and very repressive against any dissidence that appears within it.

This from one side, and from another side, the regime that tries always to unify the bulk of the Alaouits behind its power by creating the impression that any change will not be in their favor as a minority. Which means, from my point of view, that when such a change may become almost certain: The Alaouits, and so that to avoid any abrupt (Internal or external) disaster, have to lead this change and remain on the same time in control of the main keys of power mean the army & the mukhabarat.

4 – Accordingly, the real lonely issue will be – maybe not right now but within the next coming months or years, as say Mr. V. Perthes - an internal coup d’etat that will change the situation and put Syria on its way to “Democracy”. A “Democracy” that for sure, will not be fully compliant with the Western norms. A form of “Democracy” that maybe much closer to the Turkish model that is according to my knowledge accepted by the West and which remain, if compared with the actual Syrian situation, a real step forward.

5 - And also, Mr. V. Perthes who seems to understand quit well the Syrian situation; did not forget the potential and essential role to be played by the Syrian bourgeoisie which seems apparently until now as backing the regime, but which position will change for sure, with the development of the situation on the ground. Noting here, that because the regime is also very aware from this potential danger, it was very repressive against “apparently inoffensive” people like Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi as potential representatives of this tendency. Noting here also, that the Syrian bourgeoisie, although very conservative, is very pragmatic and not fundamentalist at all.

6 – And at the end, it is very clear that Mr. V. Perthes, like you dear Joshua, has no illusion concerning the inefficiency of the actual Syrian opposition which is mostly, in my opinion, under the control of the Assad regime.

A Syrian Dissident

Joshua Landis responds: Many thanks for your interesting analysis. We both agree that the opposition is neither strong enough nor popular enough to lead regime-change. We do differ about the likelihood of a coup. Here are the reasons I don't believe it is realistic for the West to place hard sanctions on Syria in the expectation that a "friendly" coup will solve its Syria problem and allow it to end the sanctions regime before the people starve.

1. Who is the Musharrif among the top Alawi officers? I still haven't heard anyone suggest one. Of course, the answer to this question would be that we don't know because that officer wouldn't advertise himself as anti-Asad. But that is just the problem. It would be very hard for a coup to be hatched in such secret. Hafiz al-Asad built a very coup-proof regime by multiplying the security branches around Damascus and creating a palace guard ruled by his brother. This is not the 1950s or 1960s, when the head of the air force or armed forces could take over.

2. The regime is not Alawite and many Alawites are fed up with the present situation. I agree with you on this up to a point. The Alawite dissident groups you mention are mostly out of power or too old to carry out a coup. -- those
"sympathizing with (Assad old rival) Salah Jedid, or those who still have links with the Arab Socialist Hurani tendency, or those of the Communist Working League, or even and especially those who are independent and pro-liberal like Aref Dalila. A very wide spectrum that can even include at a certain time those who are still pro Rifaat."
My mother-in-law's family belonged to the Salah Jadid group. Several of her brothers spend long periods in jail and others immigrated to Canada or the US in order to avoid jail. They and their friends are no longer politically active or powerful. Rifaat loyalists have been pretty well isolated and are a dwindling. Perhaps there are some members of the parties you mention who are still powerful officers, but I cannot imagine that they are powerful enough to carry out a coup.

Although most Alawis I have spoken with are quite critical of the regime and happy to distance themselves from it, I believe they remain frightened of regime-change - even change led by another Alawi. The Iraq example is very powerful right now and has increased Alawi fears that they could end up, like their Iraqi Sunni counterparts, excluded from power and hunted by their enemies. After all, America has vilified the Baath Party as a whole and Arabism as a nationalist ideology, not just the Asad family.

I have several Alawi friends whose fathers were high ranking officers. They all joke about having to go back to the village if there is violent regime-change. A few are taking the precaution of getting visas to North America or Europe for their families, just in case. They are all working for reform in one way or another because they realize it is the best thing for Syria and, perhaps also, the safest thing for their families. All the same, they have no illusions about regime-change and what it will most likely mean for Alawis.

In sum, even though most Alawis feel that their government is failing them and that Syria is becoming more corrupt by the year, they also do not trust America or like the changes they see in Iraq. They feel trapped between two bad choices. In the end, however, they don't trust America - or even their fellow Syrians - to make Syria better and protect them from Islamism or chaos. It is sad, but I think it is true.

3. The Syrian officer corps is not like the Turkish officer corps under Atatürk or his successors. Although the Syrian military is more secular than the population at large, it is mostly the minorities who are wedded to secularism. I accept your argument that the Sunni bourgeoisie is conservative but not extremist, more Sufi than Salafi, and more easy-going than literalist, but it is hard to know how it would react to extremist groups that could so easily crop up in times of change or the weakening of the security state. Would they stand by as extremist organizations took revenge on regime types? Would they move as an organized group to defend law and order? Although the Sunni bourgeoisie shares a strong common culture and is fed up with the regime, it has been largely de-politicized, is fragmented, and much of it is highly dependent on the regime. It also shares much of the regime's ideological outlook: its Arabism, its distrust of America, its hatred of Israel, its belief that America is trying to divide and weaken Iraq, etc. For these reasons, I cannot see the Sunni bourgeoisie taking a leading role in regime change. I also cannot see the upper ranks of the military making a clean ideological break with the present regime and its ideology. Everyone is Syria is unhappy, but they don't see America as an alternative. And let's face it, at this time of crisis - with the war against terrorism, reform of the greater Middle East, and the American army in Iraq - most Syrians see the world in black and white - either you are with America or you are with Bashar. The notion that a new Syrian leader could take power who would have the strength and popular backing to walk down the middle of these two alternatives seems hard to imagine. Unlike Atatürk, who was a national hero and who had saved Turkey from being divided up by the West and conquered by the Greeks, an unknown Alawi officer would have no legitimacy of his own or popular following to fall back on. He would have to turn to America for support or turn to the Baath Party and Security apparatus.

4. What would become of an Alawi officer who refused to become a prisoner of the Baath and Mukhabarat? How would he last for a day? What would be his ideology? The logical choice would be Syrian nationalism, but Syrianism is very underdeveloped in Syria. Most Syrian intellectuals still speak of the Sykes-Picot treaty and Lausanne as terrible injustices inflicted on Syria by a predator West. I have written frequently about how Syrian nationalism has been suppressed in Syria, which is a shame and which hobbles the opposition. The Islamists would oppose it as heresy and a capitulation, and so would the many Arab nationalists. Syrians do have pride in Syria, but it is not something that has been articulated into a concrete ideology, just as it hasn't become the dominant cultural form of self-identification.

5. It is for these reasons that I don't think an Alawite could take power. And if he did, he would not survive for more than a few days, after which the country could easily fall to pieces and chaos take over. This is also why I don't think it is wise for Western analysts to count on this solution for their Syria problem. If they think that by placing sanctions and isolating Syria, they will produce a friendly coup, they will most likely be disappointed. In the mean time, the sanctions regime will have to be maintained in order to punish the Asad regime and in the hope that sometime in the future a coup will eventually happen. This is what the West did to Iraq after 1991 and there was not coup - and Iraq and Saddam's army had been badly defeated in a devastating war. His legitimacy was even less than Bashar's. Most Syrians still say that they admire and like Bashar, even as they loath his regime.

6. One more argument. There has been no history of coup attempts in the last 35 years. The regime leaders are a cohesive group. Even when they have disputes, they keep it in the family and have done an excellent job of keeping them private. When Khaddam criticized Shara'a at the Baath Party Conference, it was an exception and Khaddam was retiring. The last time there was serious trouble at the top was in 1984 when Rifaat tried to take power from his brother - but that was because everyone thought Hafiz was dying and a succession struggle broke out. Since then, no purges have taken place because of failed coup plots, such as we saw happen periodically in Iraq. The Syrian regime is much more stable and unified than even the Iraqi regime was. Why would we expect that under a little America pressure it would collapse, when Iraq's didn't. Even though the UN sanctions-regime on Iraq was accused by the UN itself of causing the death of 300,000 Iraqi citizens, it did not produce a successful coup. Every western leader believed it would because their experts told them it would. Sanctions achieved nothing in Iraq, except to brutalize the population and make Iraqis less prepared to govern themselves responsibly when Saddam's government was destroyed by the American army.

Syria could go down the same road. I don't think it will because I think Europe and the UN saw what a failure sanctions were in Iraq and will be loath to repeat the experience. There is talk about reproducing the Qadhafi sanctions and doing a Libya on Syria, but Syria does not have the oil wealth of Libya to sustain it.

If America is prepared to do a deal with Bashar al-Asad, as it did with Qadhafi, once sanctions have been imposed and once Bashar reaches out for a deal because he doesn't want to see his country starve, then I might agree that sanctions will work. But I am not sure President Bush is willing to make a deal. His speech on the 5th of October, so artfully critiqued by Juan Cole, would suggest that he still sees Syria in black and white terms.

If he does make a deal, it will be over Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. I don't think democracy will have much to do with it. In such a case, Syrian dissidents, reformers, and democrats will be sorely disappointed, just as I presume Libyan democrats and opposition members were disappointed when the West made its deal with Qadhafi. Or maybe, Libyans were secretly happy for the deal because they understood that sanctions had failed them, and they believed it was better to live under Qadhafi without sanctions than to live under him with sanctions? Anyway, all this is to say, "be careful what you wish for." I don't think pressure alone is the solution. The real solution will have to come from the Syrian people and not from a secret coup. I fear there will be no man on horse back who can save Syria from itself. Only Syrians can do that.


At 10/09/2005 02:53:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

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At 10/09/2005 10:27:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

I agree with you violence produce more violence Syria needs evolution not a revolution and from what i see in syria and how much the people of syria trust Bashar to lead them there what i worry about is a blunder by the american goverment which will make Syria rightfully our enemy.

At 10/09/2005 10:48:00 PM, Blogger adonis syria said...

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At 10/09/2005 10:52:00 PM, Blogger adonis syria said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10/09/2005 10:56:00 PM, Blogger adonis syria said...

I fear there will be no man on horse back who can save Syria from itself. Only Syrians can do that.

Ok, but how is that possible if any civil regrouping outside the baath umbrella is prohibited and with the moukhabarati knife at the throat of any syrian which is the martial law.Even children ,women and old people still more under bashar era than 10 years ago,kidnaped in a cowardly manner, imprisoned and tortured.Do u think that the syrian mafia(regime)is able to push toward credible reforms and loose their privileges for the sake of 18 millions Syrians ?
No one syrian will die for Bashar and co ,and specially these Sunni hypocrits and profiteers around the regimen,at the right moment ,they will be the first to betray the dictator.

At 10/11/2005 10:04:00 AM, Blogger O.D.M said...

As always, great insight.

A coup in Syria is highly unlikely.. People would give up anything for stability under the current economic and political conditions.

I have another question for this blog viewers, it is totally off topic. In my Syrian Civil Disobedience blog, my side bar (where you put the links and profile and all) is pushed all the way to the bottom of the page. So you have to scroll down many posts to get to it. I know this happened with you Josh earlier, and I ask for anyones help in bringing it back up. Your help and time much appreciated.

Thank you,


At 10/11/2005 12:43:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10/11/2005 02:41:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

It was an interesting discussion between you and this dissident, and I think that your arguments clearly won the debate.

At 10/12/2005 02:18:00 AM, Blogger Concerned Syrian said...

I believe that there are steps that Bashar can take to avoid a military confrontation with the US.

The first thing that he needs to do is mobilize 150,000 troops to the Syrian-Iraqi Border. I'm not saying that he should do this to help stop the killing of US's the iraqi civilians that are dying that saddens me.

Secondly, Bashar needs to establish an embassy in Baghdad ASAP even if the situation in Iraq isn't stable.

Thirdly, Bashar needs to open an embassy with Lebanon because that is the will and desire of the majority of the Lebanese people and we can't just live in denial that we have a brotherly or sisterly relationship....we all know that the Lebanese despise the Syrians.

Fourthly, Bashar needs to ensure that free elections will take place on every level of government, this will be called the two year plan. Set up the neccessary establishments and grass roots organizations that will help the transition process from going from a 38 year dictatorship to a viable people elected government.

Finally, Bashar needs to encourage the establishment of a free press in order to battle the ongoing propoganda war being committed against syria. We don't have a single government free syrian publication!?

I believe that there are many other things that Bashar can do, but unfortunatly, the reality on the ground is that our leaders in the Middle East would give up their mothers before giving up that seat that they so dearly hold on to.

At 10/12/2005 05:47:00 AM, Blogger Yabroud said...


Who will pay for the costs of mobilizing 150000 troops?

Anyway, Dr. Bashar does not need an advice. He is fully capable of understanding what he needs. Those of you who think that he made mistake will know better later. The "mistakes" were done on purpose. In the short run, people think he lost Lebanon, etc.., but he did it this way for purposes beyond our ordinary understanding. Who are we to know what is in his mind anyway? This man is a genius even beyond Khadafi's genius. All will be well for him. He will rule Syria for the next 50 years.

Long Live Hafez Bashar Assad!

Member of the Opposition.

At 10/12/2005 06:53:00 AM, Blogger Yabroud said...

Now, this regime has killed Ghazi Kanaan, and said he comitted suicide. May be this will solve the problem facing the regime, and Assad will stay on!

At 10/12/2005 06:56:00 AM, Blogger Ghassan said...

Congratulations, one of the murderers was killed, sorry committed suicide! A lot more will follow sooner or later!

At 10/12/2005 09:14:00 AM, Blogger O.D.M said...

Dear all,

as I predicted as far as September 12, Ghazi Kanaaan would be sacrifised in the old Syrian "suicide" death, Mukhabarat style: (end of post)

"-Syria can better handle the situation by making up evidence that Ghazi Kanaan ordered Harriri killed, show it to international community, and then assassinate Kanaan in his house, with an Absolute Vodka bottle next to him and a suicide letter, with a glock in his hand. Perfect suicide."


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