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The shabeehah were out in force last night, hundreds of young men armed with sticks and batons, sitting outside the main mosques of Meedan and Kafr Souseh, waiting for protests to emerge. Large green public buses ferried them into the centre so that they could stand around, intimidate and make the odd arbitrary ‘arrest’. A young guy in a cream coloured shirt lead in handcuffs towards a minivan, the curtains pulled shut.

Qaboun, north east of the Old City, has experienced growing demonstrations over the past two weeks. Last night however, it was completely deserted. The only proof of the neighbourhood’s dissent is the opposition graffiti on the walls which has since been blacked out by loyalists, leaving ugly dark patches on the white walls. Pro-regime slogans have been scribbled next to them in denial of the area’s growing frustration and anger.

Further east, Harasta was in complete darkness. The region is regularly denied electricity by the regime to thwart opposition attempts to organise and mobilise. Residential buildings shrouded in a gloomy dark loomed above the beams of car headlights below. “It’s as if there’s a war”, said our taxi driver. Despite the blackout, a few shops were still open, lit by torches and candles. A glowing furnace provided the only light in a pizza shop.

The deliberate power outages will have been particularly annoying as residents of Harasta hoped to spend their Ramadan evenings watching the season’s best television series and staying up all night eating and socialising. People did their best to enjoy their Friday evenings, gathering outside on plastic chairs or congregating in front of the few shops with a generator. But still, the area was eerily quiet.

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As protests grow in size and frequency across the country, Syrians are beginning to ask, what’s next? There is little reason to believe that the government will back down any time soon, despite increasing condemnation from the international community. And given Assad’s track record of offering reforms while continuing to kill and imprison demonstrators, the opposition is unlikely to be happy until they see the regime overthrown.

There are therefore two potential ways for the Syrian uprising to evolve. The first involves economic pressure on the regime, which will most likely involve Turkish sanctions, a worsening economy and the eventual shifting of allegiance of the traditional merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo. Without this crucial support base, Assad would not be able to hold out indefinitely.

Alternatively, the Syrian unrest, which is currently an uprising hoping to become a revolution, could see rising levels of violence, resulting in a civil war. Unfortunately, journalists and long-time Syria observers whom I have spoken to here are increasingly predicting the eventual emergence of civil war. Such a conflict could follow similar patterns to Libya, where the country is eventually split in two along political grounds. Or it could be a far more complicated environment, with conflict driven by religious, ethnic and even regional geopolitical factors.

The unrest is still several stages from all-out war. Various political and military conditions will have to be met. One of the most crucial factors will be the state of the Syrian armed forces and the regime’s ability to maintain loyalty.

Splits within the army are already starting to emerge. There are increasing signs of fragmentation within the largely Sunni rank and file. Video testimonials from defected soldiers float are plentiful and there are reports of gun battles between loyal and defected soldiers. Last week the Syrian Free Army announced their formation, although little has been heard from the group so far, and doubts have been raised as to whether the men in the video are even real officers.

But a civil war will require far more than isolated cases of disobedience and defection. As we have seen in Libya, one of the greatest challenge faced by any rebel army is a shortage of weapons and ammunition. Even in Libya, where entire brigades, along with all their resources and firepower, joined the opposition, the rebels quickly used up their available ammunition and struggled to put a weapon in the hands of each infantryman..

From the very beginning of the uprising, there were reports of weapons being smuggled in via Syria’s two war-stricken neighbours, Lebanon and Iraq. Initially many of these reports may have been fabricated by the regime to encourage the idea that the unrest was caused by armed militants. But articles by the NPR and the Daily Star provide good reason to believe that light arms are indeed being transported across the Iraqi and Lebanese borders.

The Economist provides a similar report:

Some protesters say they should resort to violence. In towns such as Tel Kalakh, Jisr al-Shughour, Idleb and Deir ez-Zor, which are near the border, weapons are being smuggled in. But rifles and Molotov cocktails are no match for tanks and artillery. Other protesters hope that, if the regime becomes even more brutal, chunks of the army may defect, as they did in Libya.

The need for weapons may have also inspired the attack on a Homs army college in late July.

After weapons, any would-be rebel army will need some form of safe zone, a haven in which to organise and train, akin to eastern Libya where the rebels have effectively founded a parallel state. When the Syrian army launched its assault on Jisr al-Shughour there was talk of Turkey moving in to Syrian territory to set up a buffer zone in order to protect the thousands of refugees massing on the border. Such a zone could function as friendly territory for civilian opposition groups and defected soldiers.

Alternatively, were the army to lose both Homs and Hama to the opposition, they would also lose control of the Aleppo-Damascus highway. This would severely limit the regime’s ability to move troops between the two largest cities and create a zone in the centre of the country outside of government control.

While the threat of civil war becomes more likely with each passing week, the possibility of a more drawn out conclusion, driven by internal economics and international pressure, is also emerging. With its past experiences in the region, the US is very wary of another failed Muslim state. As such it is quietly pursuing a gentler resolution to the crisis, founded on sanctions and diplomatic pressure, most importantly from Syria’s Muslim and Arab neighbours. So far it has also shied away from explicitly demanding that Assad step down. Without an organised opposition, Syria would experience a devastating power vacuum were Assad to relinquish control. Most importantly the West should not be under any illusions that the unrest can be resolved quickly or easily. Assad is not going anywhere anytime soon.

London burning

What is going on in London?! The images of Hama in ruins on al Jazeera Arabic have been replaced by  footage of Brixton and Peckham on fire. As one tweet put it: “And so the Arab spring is replaced by the hoodie summer”.

An embarrassing example of ‘civil unrest’.

 

Carpetright building, Tottenahm

It’s hard not to make comparisons. After all, the Syrian uprising drew its initial inspiration from Tunisia and Libya. The boys who graffitied ‘the people want the downfall of the regime’ 5 months ago in Der’aa had undoubtedly heard the phrase from television coverage of those two other more successful revolutions.

But the Syrian uprising will not end as easily as the Tunisian and Egyptian ones. The security apparatus has not, and will not, crumble in the face of mass civil disobedience, as in Tunisia. And the military certainly won’t discard decades of loyalty and back the opposition overnight as happened in Egypt. No, the Syrian awakening will more closely resemble Yemen. Months of protests and countless dead were not enough to oust the stubborn president. In the end it required a random and violent response. An RPG attack on the presidential motorcade, serious burn and shrapnel injuries, and Saleh is eventually forced to leave Yemeni territory for treatment in Saudi Arabia. He vowed to return after he recovered but is still moping around the Kingdom.

However, the Syrian opposition should not be encouraged by the Yemeni model. Instead it should be a warning. Despite widespread calls for his departure, Saleh clung on to power, resorting to brutal violence to quell the dissent. Even when thousands lined the streets of Sanaa and influential generals and tribal leaders declared their support for the protestors, the president stalled, promising to step down some time later.

If we had to compare Syria to another Arab country experiencing its own awakening, then Libya would be the closest example, which experienced a fissure in the military and a cleaving of the country in half. But even there the comparison falls short. There will be no dramatic climax, no mass defections. The military command – Alawites and Assad loyalists – will not be abandoning their leader any time soon. Instead, Syria will experience a gentle trickle of disaffected soldiers and officers, who are either sickened by the government’s brutal response or angered by orders to shoot their fellow soldiers. Civil war is a very real outcome for the Syrian uprising but the build up to it will not be fast or straightforward.

This is an article I wrote a while ago for the Our Man In project but only just got round to publishing:

The media environment in Syria is not conducive to journalism, facts or truth. Whether trying to understand the situation from inside or outside the country, the dearth of verifiable, factual or unbiased information is obvious. This would probably have something to do with the crippling censorship and rampant propaganda on behalf of the regime. While the government recently allowed a small group of foreign journalists back into the country, so far they have had trouble reporting on anything of real significance. Government minders have kept them on a short leash, rarely allowing them to stray far from the official press route. Continue reading at Our Man In Syria

Today’s Reading

The Syrian business community is the key to the survival of Bashar al-Assad. Despite his brutality and widely perceived loss of legitimacy, Assad has not yet lost this critical constituency. The Damascus and Aleppo business establishment is still betting on Assad’s political survival, while his crony capitalist regime partners see their fate as tied to his. Unless they change their calculations, Assad may still hold on to power.

“We are seeing some defections but nothing near the critical mass that might indicate the beginnings of a serious mutiny by Sunni soldiers,” said Andrew Terrill, Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College.

“Creating splits in the Syrian army is not easy,” former Syrian state security official Samer Afndi told Reuters.

“The staffing structure has layers, like a Russian doll. A break in one layer is not going to affect the other layers.”

Discipline for lower ranks is brutally enforced.

Syrian exiles, citing accounts from relatives, say that in cases where Sunni troops are deployed on the frontline, they are coerced into firing on demonstrators because security agents positioned to their rear will shoot them if they disobey orders.

While it is almost impossible to prove the extent of the death toll, there is growing evidence that violent elements pledging allegiance to the opposition have carried out well armed and carefully co-ordinated attacks against government troops since as long ago as April.

The government views Aleppo and Damascus — though the capital has seen a certain amount of protest — as the two cities it cannot lose to the revolution and has implemented safeguards to ensure that, said Ala Sassila, a native of Aleppo and a board member of the Syrian American Council, which advocates for democratic change in Syria. The measures include an overwhelming presence of security forces, police and government enforcers, but also less overt tactics.

Construction code enforcement has all but disappeared as the city witnesses an illegal construction boom; electricians, plumbers and tile workers who have been unemployed for years are now barely able to keep up with the work. Roads in need of repair for years have been repaved. Traffic laws, which had become more strict, are no longer implemented. People steal electricity with no repercussions.

Similar relaxation of laws is occurring in Damascus as well.

“Go do whatever you want, go play, go steal, as long as you don’t go protest, this is what’s happening in Aleppo,” Abdulhamid said. “Stay quiet, don’t open your mouth.”

Today’s Pictures

Al Jazeera – not everyone’s favourite news channel in Syria

Anti al-Jazeera sticker on rubbish bin, one of several around Merjeh