Now that we have examined and had a look at the security dilemma and threats facing the Syrian government’s survival, what options are available to them? What tactics will they deploy and what rhetoric will they use? The weak-state security dilemma focuses on some of the options available to the political elites, and we can try and see whether or not they are indeed using any of these methods and to what effect.
The first most commonly used tactic used by state elites trying to retain power and survive according to Jackson and the weak-state dilemma is the widespread use of security and state forces to coerce populations into submission. They use tactics such as torture, intimidation, imprisonment, assassination, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, violent suppression of political expression, destruction of food supplies, and in extreme cases, genocide, and politicide.
One danger of using state forces and institutions against the society it rules or large parts of the society is that these state forces can turn against the political elites/regime. We know that before the civil war began in Syria, civilians were protesting the political imprisonment of individuals that critiqued or spoke out in opposition to the regime. Numerous disappearances were reported, security forces arrested some protestors and interrogated them (some of those interrogated were underage minors – children), and some of those arrested were also reportedly tortured. As the protests against the government intensified, the government of Syria resorted to open fire against the protestors. It is during this time that some Syrian defense personnel defected and started up their own militia group known as the FSA, in opposition to the Syrian regime/government. During the civil war so far, populations have been entrapped in enclaves in different cities and towns were there is violent conflict raging and as a result of this, water, food and health care has been and is extremely limited.
One tactic the state elites can use in order to prevent this opposition from rising from within its own state forces, is to divide and conquer. States can divide up the states security forces into different ‘leagues’ such as elite soldiers or divisions, or divide them into different services so that they come into ‘competition’ with one another. The state elites can also use this tactic against state institutions, bureaucracies, religious groups etc. Weakening state institutions in this context is a viable security measure state elites can take in order to reduce the risk of uprisings from within. Sometimes the regime will also create methods of positive reinforcement by creating rewards for those loyal to the regime. These can be in the form of elaborate patronage systems, pompous ceremonies and awards, or promotions and monetary incentives. Such methods used by the state can enforce different types of power redistribution, and corruption feeds into this system. The state elites can also reward figures such as warlords, criminal syndicates, and other militias in turn for their support. The state entices them by offering up control of particular areas, exclusive control over particular commercial activities or have state resources diverted their way. The state can also entice divisions and conflict between minority groups in the state, particularly ethnic or religious groups as part of this divide and conquer strategy. Thus particular groups fight between themselves instead of fighting together against the state. The state can then also promote particular ethnic or religious groups or individuals to state power. Ethnic and religious identity is often exploited by developing states. We know from the previous post on the conflict in Syria, that most of President Assad’s regime and he himself is from the religious minority of the Alawites.
There are also numerous ways that a weak state can exploit the international community and the democratic ‘process’. However, what I wanted to look at more closely since we can use Syria’s current state of conflict as an example, is the way it can exploit and use foreign alliances to its advantage and to bolster its state control and ‘legitimacy’. Weak states look for powerful international allies to help guarantee regime survival. We know that this very important aspect for Syria’s regime. Civil war can often mean the collapse of governance, state institutions and the state economic apparatus. Without these, the Syrian government and state security forces may not be able to continue fighting the opposition over a long period of time. Outside assistance is vital in this scenario. We know Russia and Iran are supporting Syria militarily and financially. Russia and China have vetoed many sanctions and any possibility for UN intervention in the conflict (except for diplomatic resolutions). These state allies usually have many reasons why they take the stand that they do. Remember, no one enters a war, or supports a weak regime without having considered many different factors. For example, Russia and China are most often against military intervention in states, even if a humanitarian crisis is unfolding or if it has taken place. Why? Because they want to uphold the concept of state sovereignty at all costs, even though state sovereignty is only legitimate through the inherent implication that a state protects and secures the future of its population. Very often in weak states, different groups want to either overthrow the state government if they do not believe that the state is upholding its responsibilities to the population or certain groups want to declare independence. Even though Russia and China have functioning power and authority in their states and through their institutions, there are conflicts within certain factions of their societies. China and Russia are afraid that if these conflicts were to increase, their acceptance of other states military intervention, would in turn result in states accepting and carrying out intervention in their own states. It may be a far reach considering the power and authority Russia and China hold, however the possibility cannot be excluded. It goes so far as China refusing the extension of peacekeepers contracts in Macedonia after the break up of Yugoslavia, because Macedonia in rhetoric supported the independence of Tibet. Bit extreme isn’t it, but then again these states want to limit any threat to their control and power of their state.
Russia was an ally of Syria before this current civil war started. Russia not only had (and continues to have) a customer for its arms, but also could have limited military presence in the Middle East. They fear that the Middle East will be dominated by Western control and influence especially after the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (the U.S. can also count Saudi Arabia and Israel as allies). Iran no doubt also has this fear that Western states, and especially the U.S. will dominate in influence and military presence in the Middle East. Iran always saw itself as the rightful regional power of influence in the Middle East (stemming from their history and dominance of rule back in the Persian Empire). Iran is predominantly Shiite while Syria is predominantly Sunni, however, the Alawite sect is a Shiite sect. Both states are authoritarian in their ruling (Syria is proto-facist). While Iran is a theocracy and ideologically opposed to secularism and atheist communism, Syria tried to impose a secular state with principles of socialism under its Baa’thist regime. However, their broader security strategies aligned (for e.g. with their opposition to Israel) and fueled cooperation between the two.
And who is supporting the Syrian opposition? Many Western states publicly denounced Assad’s regime and have stated that he should step down from power. Both because the violence and fatalities caused by the Syrian armed security forces could not be ignored, and also because of the fear that the violence could spread beyond its borders. If Assad had stepped down from power earlier, perhaps the civil war would not have started. Of course in that case other problems would arise such as power vacuums (for example like in Libya currently). Russia and other opponents to intervention state that doing so could pull the region into war, especially since Iran and Russia back Syria. However, many experts such as Amir Teheri state that while Iran and Russia back Syria with arms and money, it is unlikely that if the stakes were raised high enough, they would be prepared to fight their war. The longer the conflict continues the more Syria’s neighbours will be dealing with the fall out (e.g. the huge numbers of refugees fleeing Syria to Jordan and Turkey – there is thought to be 350,000 refugees currently who have fled Syria). Wars have a tendency to spread and fall over the borders, especially in troubled regions. We have just heard in the news that Turkish civilians were fatally shot by Syrian security forces (it is probable that it was the Syrian security forces, however it is unknown at this stage if it was a mistake or purposely done so). Turkey has always had a troubled relationship with Syria. At the beginning of the violence in Syria, Turkey pressured the Assad regime to follow through with reforms (and Assad was not happy about this). Turkey was also the place that many national defectors from Syria sought cover. The Syrian National Council is based in Turkey, and is a major Syrian civilian coalition, opposed to the Assad regime. Many of its top members are exiled politicians and diplomats. The top commanders from the FSA are also headquartered in Turkey, however it is unclear how much assistance they are receiving from Turkey, and their movement is limited. Turkey no doubt has to deal with the fall out caused by the Syrian civil war and as a member of NATO has to take the security threat seriously and keep it under control as much as possible. Turkey will be judged by the international community in how well it responds to the fall out of the conflict, and I am not surprised that it is now opposed to the Assad regime as is most of the West. Turkey however does not want to enter into a war with Syria especially alone. Assad’s regime is not happy that Turkey has kept its borders open to Syrian defectors and opposition groups. As military intervention has been vetoed in the U.N., most Western states have pledged to provide Syrian refugees with aid assistance. Britain has gone one step further and pledged 8 million pounds to Syrian opposition groups, while it is thought that the U.S. has pledged 45 million dollars also to Syrian opposition groups. Both states claim that the money will go towards non-lethal assistance, such as satellites, medical equipment etc. In reality though, it is highly probable that some of this money will be redirected by the Syrian opposition for arms. The West is nervous that if the civil war continues for an extended period of time, extremists will join in the fight. As I mentioned in the previous post on Syria, Al Qaeda’s al-Nusra front is present in Syria, even though they are thought to have limited presence.
The more militias and armed groups that enter the conflict, the more Syria could be torn a part and if the Assad regime falls, different territories might be in control by different groups. The threat that power vacuums present are just as dangerous as the current civil war. It seems that both main parties in the civil war have enough backing and assistance to keep fighting for an extended period of time. This could mean years. If the Syrian security forces keep even accidently shelling across the border into Turkey, NATO may feel it has to intervene in some way to top the Assad regime. I highly doubt that any other nation will send its own troops on the ground into Syria, air strikes carried out by NATO like in Libya may be highly probable. I fear that whatever sides gains victory, this could very well be a prolonged civil war, and one side defeating the other will not solve all of Syria’s security issues, in reality it will just create new threats and insecurity.
So where do you think the conflict is heading? Leave me a comment and until next time!
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 Richard Jackson in ‘Contemporary Security Studies’ edited by Alan Collins, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010