Council on Foreign Relations | Syria’s Bloody Stalemate
Interviewee: Peter Harling, Director, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, International Crisis Group
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Much of Syria is “in a state of chaos,” says Peter Harling, who has been based in Damascus for the International Crisis Group, and has gone back and forth for months. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is “both well-entrenched and losing control.” As for the opposition, the Syrian National Council, based abroad, he says the group “has championed an increasingly radicalized street, over-invested in an elusive international intervention, and eschewed more constructive politics.” As for the jihadists, he says that what is surprising “is that foreign fighters and jihadis, for now, have not taken on a bigger role.” On the international side, he says Kofi Annan’s cease-fire plan “grew out of the international community’s inability to agree on anything else,” and as long as the “stalemate endures, it will continue to enjoy support, even from states that do not put much faith in it but have no workable alternative to offer.”
You have been back and forth to Syria for quite some time. Could we start with your assessment of the situation on the ground? Is the Assad government in control; what is the role of the opposition?
The regime is both well-entrenched and losing control. Much of the country is in a state of chaos. Despite plethoric security and military assets, the single most important road, running north to south from Aleppo to Damascus, is unsafe. Criminal activity is rampant even in the vicinity of the capital. For months, opposition armed groups have made it difficult for regime troops to maintain a sustainable presence in many parts of Syria. More often than not, loyalist forces are reduced to hit-and-run operations that cause tremendous damage, solve nothing, and rather make things worse.
At the same time, the regime’s core structures remain solid. A steady trickle of defections has continued, but the floodgates have not opened. This resilience has several causes. Some regime officials fear the future for the country, their community, or themselves, and believe this is a struggle for survival. Others have actually profited from the crisis, gaining in status or wealth in the booming economy of violence. Yet others are deeply disillusioned, tempted to defect, but disinclined to do so as long as the regime appears here to stay. All in all, the power structure is eroding slowly in a country that is crumbling fast all around it.
Photo: Freedom House