The Fall of the House of Assad

It's too late for the Syrian regime to save itself.

"Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh" -- "peaceful, peaceful" -- was one of the Tunisian revolution's most contagious slogans. It was chanted in Egypt, where in some remarkable cases protesters defused state violence simply by telling policemen to calm down and not be scared. In both countries, largely nonviolent demonstrations and strikes succeeded in splitting the military high command from the ruling family and its cronies, and civil war was avoided. In both countries, state institutions proved themselves stronger than the regimes that had hijacked them. Although protesters unashamedly fought back (with rocks, not guns) when attacked, the success of their largely peaceful mass movements seemed an Arab vindication of Gandhian nonviolent resistance strategies. But then came the much more difficult uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria.

Even after at least 1,300 deaths and more than 10,000 detentions, according to human rights groups, "selmiyyeh" still resounds on Syrian streets. It's obvious why protest organizers want to keep it that way. Controlling the big guns and fielding the best-trained fighters, the regime would emerge victorious from any pitched battle. Oppositional violence, moreover, would alienate those constituencies the uprising is working so hard to win over: the upper-middle class, religious minorities, the stability-firsters. It would push the uprising off the moral high ground and thereby relieve international pressure against the regime. It would also serve regime propaganda, which against all evidence portrays the unarmed protesters as highly organized groups of armed infiltrators and Salafi terrorists.

The regime is exaggerating the numbers, but soldiers are undoubtedly being killed. Firm evidence is lost in the fog, but there are reliable and consistent reports, backed by YouTube videos, of mutinous soldiers being shot by security forces. Defecting soldiers have reported mukhabarat lined up behind them as they fire on civilians, watching for any soldier's disobedience. A tank battle and aerial bombardment were reported after a small-scale mutiny in the Homs region. Tensions within the military are expanding.

And a small minority of protesters does now seem to be taking up arms. Syrians -- regime supporters and the apolitical as much as anyone else -- have been furiously buying smuggled weapons since the crisis began. Last week for the first time, anti-regime activists reported that people in Rastan and Talbiseh were meeting tanks with rocket-propelled grenades. Some of the conflicting reports from Jisr al-Shaghour, the besieged town near the northwestern border with Turkey, describe a gun battle between townsmen and the army. And a mukhabarat man was lynched by a grieving crowd in Hama.

The turn toward violence is inadvisable but perhaps inevitable. When residential areas are subjected to military attack, when children are tortured to death, when young men are randomly rounded up and beaten, electrocuted, and humiliated, some Syrians will seek to defend themselves. Violence has its own momentum, and Syria appears to be slipping toward war.

There are two potential civil-war scenarios. The first begins with Turkish intervention. Since Syrian independence in 1946, tensions have bubbled over into Turkey's Hatay province, known to Syrians as Wilayat Iskenderoon, the Arab region unjustly gifted to Kemal Ataturk by the French. War almost broke out in 1998 over Syria's hosting of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, who now sits in a Turkish prison. Yet since the ascension of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and Bashar al-Assad's inheritance of the Syrian presidency, relations have dramatically improved. Turkey invested enormous financial and political capital in Syria, establishing a Levantine free trade zone and distancing itself from Israel.

Erdogan extracted promises of reform from Bashar at the onset of the protests and then watched with increasingly visible consternation as the promises were broken. He warned Syria repeatedly against massacres and their consequences (on June 9, he described the crackdown as "savagery"). Syria's response is reminiscent of Israel's after last year's Mavi Marmara killings: slandering its second-most important ally with petulant self-destructiveness.

Turkish military intervention remains unlikely, but if the estimated 4,000 refugees who have crossed the border thus far swell to a greater flood, particularly if Kurds begin crossing in large numbers, Turkey may decide to create a safe haven in north or northeastern Syria. This territory could become Syria's Benghazi, potentially a home for a more local and credible opposition than the exile-dominated one that recently met in Antalya, Turkey, and a destination to which soldiers and their families could defect. A council of defected officers might then organize attacks on the regime from the safe haven, adding military to economic and diplomatic pressure.

The second scenario is sectarian war, as seen in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon. Although most people choose their friends from all communities, sectarianism remains a real problem in Syria. The ruling family was born into the historically oppressed Alawi community. The Ottomans regarded Alawis as heretics rather than as "people of the book," and Alawis -- unlike Christians, Jews, and mainstream Shiite Muslims -- were therefore deprived of all legal rights. Before the rise of the Baath and the social revolution it presided over, Alawi girls served as housemaids in Sunni cities. Some Alawis fear those times are returning and will fight to prevent change. The social stagnation of dictatorship has made it difficult to discuss sectarian prejudice in public, which has sometimes kept hatreds bottled up. Some in the Sunni majority perceive the Assads as representatives of their sect and resent the entire community by extension.

None of this makes sectarian conflict inevitable. Class and regional cleavages are perhaps more salient than sect in Syria today. Sunni business families have been co-opted into the power structure while disfavored Alawis have suffered as much as anyone else. The protesters, aware of the dangers, have consistently chanted slogans of national unity. And in Lebanon and Iraq the catalysts for civil war were external interventions, not internal upheaval.

The catalyst in Syria may be the regime itself. Simulating sectarian war is one of the regime's preferred tactics. In March, Syrian friends have told me, its shabiha militia tried to spark social breakdown in Latakia by pretending to be a Sunni mob while it shot up Alawi areas and an Alawi mob as it terrorized Sunni neighborhoods. Syrians say the regime is arming Alawi villages and wishfully thinking of a repeat of the 1980s, when it faced a genuinely violent sectarian challenge in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it defeated at the Hama massacre in 1982.

The danger of the simulacrum is that it could become reality. If the regime doesn't disintegrate quickly, the state will disintegrate gradually, and then the initiative could be seized by the kind of tough men who command local loyalty by providing the basics and avenging the dead. If violence continues at this pitch for much longer, it's easy to imagine local and sectarian militias forming, with the Sunnis receiving funding from the Persian Gulf.

Such a scenario would be a disaster for Syrians of all backgrounds. The ripple effects would be felt in Lebanon (which would likely be sucked into the fray), Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, and beyond. It could also give a second life to the Wahhabi-nihilist groups currently relegated to irrelevance by the new democratic mood in the region.

Let's hope the boil bursts before either of these wars occurs. The economy may collapse catastrophically, at which point almost every Syrian would have to choose between revolution and starvation. Under continued pressure, the regime may destroy itself through internecine conflict, or it may surrender when mass desertions make the military option unfeasible. The manner of bringing the boil to eruption remains obscure. What seems certain is that the regime will not be able to bring Syria back under its heel.



Grave Inflation

A new report on the Haiti earthquake reminds again that, for aid groups, more casualties means more funding.

I once met a High Court judge in London who complained that as the criminals before him seemed to commit more and more brutal acts, he was having increasing difficulty knowing how to describe his outrage when it came time to sentence them. "What am I supposed to do?" he asked. "If I were being honest, I would have to say something along the lines of 'This is the most horrific offense that I have encountered since, well, last Tuesday.' Obviously, I can't do that. But sometimes mustering the requisite hyperbole that the case before me is uniquely horrible can be a bit difficult."

Humanitarian relief workers must often feel the same way. At least, one hopes they do. Here is Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), speaking in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010. "This is a historic disaster," she said. "We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the U.N. memory. It is like no other."

The problem with such over-the-top rhetoric is that it requires a willful suspension of disbelief and no small degree of historical amnesia. Was the Haitian earthquake really a greater challenge and a deeper tragedy than the refugee emergency in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide or the 1990s famines in North Korea -- both of which involved the relief arms of the United Nations? Perhaps a moral philosopher could adjudicate the hierarchy of these horrors, but surely it is above the pay grade of an international civil servant like Byrs or, for that matter, a writer like me.

Taken individually, such assertions are bad enough. Worse still is that in almost every natural disaster, famine, relief emergency, or forced movement of people, there is always an aid worker, journalist, U.N. official, or some political figure to say that what is taking place in country A, B, or C, is the worst example of its kind that the world has yet known. The world "biblical" is usually a dead giveaway (at least when employed metaphorically rather than, as fundamentalist Christians sometimes do, in the literal sense of God's wrath made manifest). It was used by British journalist Michael Buerk when he reported on the Ethiopian famine in 1984, and it was used by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to describe Port-au-Prince in 2010, and any number of times in between.

But even hyperbole must be undergirded by something -- and in the world of what are conventionally, if somewhat misleadingly called humanitarian emergencies, it is almost always the brute number of people killed, shelters destroyed, services unavailable, and livelihoods ended. That was certainly the case in Haiti, where the earthquake was estimated to have killed somewhere between 200,000 (the lowest NGO estimate) and 318,000 people (the official Haitian government figure) and left 1.5 million people homeless, of whom, in the spring of 2011, some 680,000 were still said to be living in resettlement camps.

Perhaps this is why last month's leaking of a report prepared by business and development consultancy LTL Strategies that questions all these figures -- instead estimating a death toll of somewhere between 46,000 and 85,000, an initial displacement of 895,000, and a population still living in camps of 375,000 -- has caused such consternation in official Washington, not to mention on the part of many mainline relief NGOs working in Haiti today, as well as the Haitian government. Ironically, the report had been commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), though for now at least the agency is not willing to vouch for it. This has led Timothy T. Schwartz, the report's principal author, to write on his blog of the U.S. government's "effort to discredit a survey that it commissioned and for which it reviewed and approved the methodology."

Schwartz is a Haiti expert and longtime critic of the NGOs -- particularly of the Christian charities, a majority of which are from the United States -- that have long run a network of schools and orphanages in the country. Given the controversial character of Schwartz's work, it is very much to USAID's credit that it was willing to fund his research, even if the agency is now running away from his report like a scalded cat. Schwartz has said repeatedly and restated on his blog that whatever the true figures, the earthquake was a great tragedy. "Intellectually," he wrote, "I really don't care how many people got killed.... [I]n terms of the tragedy, less is better."

This would seem unarguable. And yet the consternation over the report in Washington and Port-au-Prince is profound. The reason for this is fear. In an era of scarce resources in which Barack Obama's administration is under harsh pressure from a Congress that is highly skeptical of foreign aid, the discovery that the resources committed to Haitian relief may not have been insufficient -- as many NGO representatives have been saying for at least a year -- but instead have been excessive is a dangerous game.

Anyone familiar with the debate on Capitol Hill these days will know that such fears are more than warranted, above all because it plays into the corrupt-locals-exploiting-generous-Americans meme that is never far from the surface in official Washington. Whether that is a good enough reason to reject Schwartz's conclusions is another question entirely. And in reality, even if Schwartz is off by a considerable extent, there is little chance that the initial estimates of the dead and displaced in Port-au-Prince are any more accurate than initial estimates of these figures in any of the other major natural disasters of the past half-century.

Even today, we only have a fairly approximate idea of how many people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, while it is virtually certain that the initial casualty estimates for those killed in Burma when Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008 were wildly overstated. In that instance, the supposed indifference of the Burmese dictatorship to the plight of its own citizens and the urgent need for relief supplies led Bernard Kouchner, then France's foreign minister, to propose that the U.N. Security Council invoke its new "responsibility to protect" doctrine to authorize delivery of relief supplies -- whether or not the authorities in Burma gave their assent -- which was to say, by force if necessary.

In most cases, death-toll uncertainty arises not because the truth is being concealed but rather because getting accurate figures in countries without competent bureaucracies is very difficult. (North Korea is a glaring exception: If we do not know how many people have died of starvation there, it is because Pyongyang does not want the death toll known.) As Rony Brauman, former president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), put it, at least in the initial stages of a disaster, what NGOs and U.N. agencies think the figures are is almost always guesswork to one degree or another.

The problem is that U.N. agencies, USAID, its European counterparts (90 percent of relief funding still comes from the OECD countries), and NGOs almost all think that to get attention for a given crisis, they must use apocalyptic language and err on the side of overestimating the death, damage, and displacement that has been caused. To do anything else is to risk not getting the minimum help needed. Call it a professional deformation, or one of the many unfortunate knock-on consequences of the 24-hour news cycle in which events bob to the surface only to be submerged by other, still more lurid happenings. If the public presentation of relief emergencies were an economy, it would be one wracked by galloping inflation.

Of course it is understandable that NGOs and U.N. agencies feel that they must exaggerate. But each time they do, they up the rhetorical ante that much more. What will happen when the next earthquake devastates a city and the OCHA is called upon to act and mobilize resources? Will Byrs or one of her successors have to claim an even more historic, more unprecedented disaster in order to get the world's attention? In the name of mobilizing compassion, we are raising the bar to impossible heights. At this rate, the 46,000 to 85,000 Haitians Schwartz estimates to have died in the earthquake will seem too small a number to really command the attention of donors and the general public in the developed world. Perhaps this has already happened. Perhaps this is why Schwartz's report has sown such panic within the U.S. government. If so, we really are damned.