Oct 8, 2012 | 17:34 GMT

5 mins read

Fracturing Leadership and Negotiations in Syria


Indications are growing that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad may be approaching its end. Rebels continue to make military gains, and the country's ruling Alawite minority is showing signs of internal fractures. Meanwhile, Turkey is making progress in a negotiated exit for the al Assad regime. While these talks are only in preliminary stages, the combined pressures on the regime are building momentum toward a post-al Assad scenario.

A key factor sustaining the regime thus far has been the cohesion of the Alawite community. So long as this group viewed the survival of the al Assad clan as synonymous with its own survival and the Alawite-dominated military, security and intelligence apparatus stood behind the al Assads, the regime had considerable staying power. However, there are early indications that the Alawite community is fracturing over the question of al Assad's survival as the rate of attrition escalates and families' willingness to tolerate the losses decreases.

The Alawites in Syria are composed of four tribes: Matawira, Khayyatin, Haddadin and Kalbiyya. The al Assads, who belong to the Numailatiyaa clan of the Matawira tribe, hail from the northwestern village of Qardaha, near the coastal city of Latakia. A Stratfor source reported that the situation in Qardaha has become extremely tense in recent days following deadly clashes between members of the al Assad family and other families, such as al Khair, al Abbud, al Shalish and al Uthman. The fighting among Alawites has also evidently spread beyond Qardaha, as suggested by an Oct. 4 report by Saudi Arabia's Al Damman al Sharq Online describing Alawites from Homs clashing with those of Latakia over the fates of Alawites being held there.

Following that report, AFP reported that a Syrian Alawite activist with the pseudonym Abu Jabal called for the Alawite community at large to join the revolt against the regime. Abu Jabal was speaking on behalf of the Free Alawites, a small group whose numbers are difficult to ascertain but who may be attracting more support as Alawite disillusionment with the al Assad clan grows. Stratfor's sources in the Alawite community are speaking cautiously about the potential for an Alawite military coup against the al Assads, who are now viewed as a liability to the survival of the Alawites.

The fracturing of the Alawites is an essential step toward the fall of the al Assads, but it could portend a troubled future for the Alawite community. Heavy infighting among the Sunnis facilitated the 1970 coup by Hafiz al Assad that consolidated Alawite domination over the country. The challenge for the Alawites is to avoid the Sunni fate by creating similar conditions for a coup that leads to the sidelining of their own community. Indeed, the conditions may be ripe for the development of an Alawite insurgency against the Sunni majority. A Stratfor source in Lebanon claims that the al Assads are trying to fashion an Alawite militia out of Syrian laborers from Alawite and Christian areas in Lebanon. Hezbollah is allegedly taking part in training these laborers for combat. This information could not be independently verified, but it is a situation that bears close watching: If the government loses control over Damascus, Syrian Alawite troops are likely to transition to insurgent tactics.

Negotiations for al Assad's Exit

Meanwhile, Turkey appears to be making headway in negotiating a transition away from the al Assad clan. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced on Turkish public television TRT that Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara (a Sunni) is a "man of reason and conscience and he has not taken part in the massacres in Syria. Nobody knows the [Syrian] system better than he."

Davutoglu's decision to float al-Shara as a potential leader of a transitional government follows a meeting between Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi three days earlier. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, in mid-September. Russian President Vladimir Putin will also visit Turkey to meet with Erdogan on Oct. 14. The diplomatic activity in Turkey is part of Iran's and Russia's efforts to try and take advantage of the stalemate in Syria to edge their way into a negotiation over the transition and retain their influence in a post-al Assad Syria. With apparent U.S. blessing, Turkey has been mediating this highly complex negotiation in hopes of bringing closure to the conflict and earning foreign policy credentials in the meantime.

There are still a number of issues that need to be sorted out for the Turkish-mediated plan to take root. The al Assad clan could be compelled to give up power if granted immunity and possibly exile (this is likely an area where Russia will play a key role.) Turkey will have to perform the very challenging task of mediating between the United States and Iran amid heightening tensions over the U.S.-led economic siege against Iran.

There is also the question of whether Syria's already deeply fractured opposition will unite behind this plan. The rebel Free Syrian Army's political adviser, Bessam Dade, said his group accepts Davutoglu's proposal as long as the transition does not become like that of Yemen, where then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh was eased out of power over a course of several months. The civilian Syrian National Council has given a mixed response, with its Turkey-based leadership claiming it was never consulted on the proposal but leader Abdelbasset Sida conceding that members of the ruling Baath Party can play a role in Syria's future so long as they do not have blood on their hands.

There are a lot of moving parts to this negotiation, but the issue that the main foreign stakeholders can likely all agree on is the need to avoid a complete dismantling of the regime that unravels the state machinery and creates an even bigger power vacuum to fill. This requires a settlement that integrates the Alawites into the transition. For now, the negotiations are still in the preliminary phase and with so many players involved with varying interests, there are a number of pitfalls to watch for. That said, the fracturing of the Alawites, the rebel advances and the Turkish-led transition talks have real potential to break the stalemate.

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