Syria’s Assad on the Ropes?


By: Patrick Seale

President Bashar al-Assad is fighting for his political life, perhaps even for life itself. His brutal repression of the protest movement in Syria has earned him international condemnation. Calls for him to step down have come from President Barack Obama and from the leaders of Britain, France and Germany. The Arab world’s heavyweight, Saudi Arabia, has recalled its ambassador from Damascus, as have several of the smaller Gulf states. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has presented a report to the Security Council describing, in gruesome detail, the killing and torture of civilian protesters. There are moves afoot to ban imports of Syrian oil to European markets, which provides about 30 percent of the state’s income.

Yet Assad remains defiant. He seems determined to fight to the end. Undeterred by harsh repression, the Friday demonstrations have swollen week after week, and their tone has hardened. Increasingly, the strident call is for the fall of the regime. Angry protesters say that over 2,000 of their number have been killed and over 13,000 arrested, many of them savagely tortured, while the regime retorts that it is fighting a foreign-inspired “conspiracy” and that 120 security personnel have been killed by “armed gangs.” A sectarian civil war on the Iraqi or Lebanese model is every Syrian’s nightmare. No one really wants that—neither the regime nor the vast majority of the opposition. There is, however, a fringe element that believes any regime, however extreme, would be better than the present one.

The opposition faces a stark choice: either go all out to bring the regime down, as some would like, or cooperate with it in building a new and better Syria. The first course is hazardous: if the Baathist state is torn down, what will replace it? The second course requires an act of faith: it means accepting that Assad truly wants to implement radical reforms and effect a transition to democracy by means of a national dialogue. He has attempted to launch such a dialogue, but has so far failed to convince—largely because the killing has continued. In August, for example, he signed a bill introducing a multiparty system, but no such reform can be implemented while the violence persists.

The regime has not distinguished itself in the trial of strength. Slow to grasp the nature of the popular uprising, it has been incompetent in confronting it. The security services, like Assad himself, seem to have been taken by surprise. By resorting to live fire against protesters at the start, in the city of Dara’a in southern Syria, they displayed indiscipline and arrogant contempt for the lives of citizens—the very contempt that, in one country after another, has been a motor of the Arab Awakening.

The speeches Assad has given since the protests started have been public-relations disasters—far from the rousing, dramatic appeal to the nation that his supporters had expected and the occasion demanded. Above all, he has failed to rein in his brutal security services and put an end to the shootings, arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture that have aroused international condemnation. Meanwhile, the Baath Party—“leader of state and society,” according to the notorious Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution—has been virtually silent, confirming the widespread belief that it has become a hollow shell, concerned only with protecting its political monopoly, its privileges and its corrupt patronage network.

If the regime has shown itself to be weak, the opposition, however, is weaker still. It wants to challenge the system, but evidently does not yet know how to go about it—apart, that is, from staging riots and publishing videos of brutal repression by government forces. It is split in a dozen ways between secularists, civil rights activists, democrats and Islamists of various sorts; between the opposition in Syria and exiles abroad, who are among the regime’s most virulent opponents; between those who call for Western intervention and those who reject any form of foreign interference; between angry, unemployed youths in the street and venerable figures of the opposition, hallowed by years in prison, most of them in late middle age. In a gesture of conciliation, the regime lifted a travel ban on several of them, including veteran human rights campaigner Haitham al-Maleh, 81, who, to his great surprise, was allowed to leave Damascus to attend an opposition gathering in Istanbul in July. But no coherent leadership has yet emerged, some say because its members, at least those inside Syria, fear arrest.

The July Istanbul meeting was the second of its kind to be held in Turkey, and seems to have enjoyed some support from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP, a ruling party of conservative Islamic coloring. But neither conference brought to the fore a united leadership or a clear program, let alone anything that might look like an alternative government. The opposition factions that have so far declared themselves—the National Democratic Grouping, the Damascus Declaration signatories, the National Salvation Council, the local coordination committees in Syria—are loose groupings of individuals with little real structure and few novel ideas, save for the goal of ending rule by the Assad family and its cronies once and for all.

The truth is that, as Tunisia and Egypt are discovering, it is exceedingly difficult to bring about a transition from an autocratic, highly centralized, one-party system to anything resembling democratic pluralism. It is not something that can be done in a weekend or even in a month. In Europe it took a couple of centuries. In Syria—and, for that matter, in most Arab countries—there is no experience of free elections, and there are no real political parties, no free trade unions, no state or civil society institutions, no separation of powers, no independent judiciary, little real political education. The Syrian Parliament is a farce.

Everything in Syria will have to be rebuilt from the ground up—including the ideology of the state. The old slogans of the post–World War II period—anticolonialism, revolutionary socialism, Baathism, radical Islamism, Arab unity and Arab nationalism, Arabism itself—will all need to be rethought, discarded or brought up to date.

As in Egypt and Tunisia, a key puzzle will be how to integrate Islamist movements into a democratic system. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned—membership is punishable by death—ever since it conducted an insurgency against the regime of former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, from 1976 to 1982, which ended in a massacre at Hama. According to Human Rights Watch, between 5,000 and 10,000 people were killed as the government fought to regain control of the town from Islamist insurgents. These events have been seared into the collective memory of most Syrians. But they mean different things to different people. For the regime, Hama was a necessary action that saved the country from Islamist terrorism. For the opposition—and especially for Sunni Muslims—it was a criminal massacre that, some would say, must be avenged.

There is, therefore, understandable uneasiness among sections of the population, especially the Christians (10 percent of the population) and the Alawis (about 12 percent). The regime is dominated by the latter, a branch of Shiite Islam, who are heavily represented in the officer corps and security services. They would be an immediate target if an extreme Sunni regime were to come to power. As Syria is a mosaic of sects and ethnic groups, the need for tolerance, reflected in an essentially secular government, is deeply ingrained. Many worried secularists look to Turkey as a model because Erdogan’s AKP has shown that Islam is compatible with democracy.

The Need for Neutral Intermediaries

Since the task of bringing democracy to Syria is so vast, and since any viable transition must inevitably take time, some observers have come to the view that a dialogue between regime and opposition would be the safest way forward. But how to start, when the two camps are separated by an abyss of hate? Clearly, the regime must first stop killing its citizens and the opposition must accept the notion of a gradual transition. A cooling-off period is urgently required.

A peacekeeping mission, staffed by neutral countries such as India, Brazil and Turkey, could do the job. Jimmy Carter could oversee it. His moral stature and his record of conciliation are widely admired. The task would be to create the conditions for a serious exchange of views and hold the regime to its promises of real democratic reforms. Free elections under international supervision should be the ultimate goal.

Assad’s Syria claims legitimacy on two main counts: for standing up to Israel and its American backer, and for having given its citizens—at least until the present crisis—a long spell of security and stability even if the price paid was an absence of political freedoms. Every Syrian knows the terrible fate suffered by two of its neighbors: Lebanon because of its savage civil war (1975–90), and Iraq because of the horrendous bloodletting of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, unleashed by the US invasion of 2003.

So Assad may be on the ropes, but he is far from finished. Some hardline protesters reject any notion of dialogue with him. Other opposition figures are more flexible but insist that the killing must stop first. As repression has intensified, the hardliners are gaining ground.

There are three scenarios that could bring the regime down: a split in the army and security forces; a major dispute within the regime or within the Assad family; or a catastrophic economic collapse. All are possible, but none seem imminent.

Except for some defections, the army and security forces have stayed loyal to the regime. So long as this remains the case, it will be difficult for the opposition to topple it. The ruling family and the regime continue to present a united front. There have been rumors of disputes between the president and his hardline brother Maher, commander of the regime’s Praetorian Guard. But little of this has emerged in public view.

The economy is, of course, a source of great concern. Syria’s tourist trade has collapsed, domestic investment has dried up and the Syrian pound has taken a battering. After the Arab Spring’s first moment of euphoria, most people now realize that the problem is not just one of forging a new political system, whether in Syria or indeed in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen. It is also a question of tackling the huge social and economic problems Syria and other countries in the region are facing: exploding populations; rampant youth unemployment; an impoverished middle class and a semi-destitute working class; a soaring cost of living; a semi-bankrupt government; policies of economic liberalization that have benefited only a tiny and corrupt elite; and neglect of workers’ rights, whether on the land or in shops and factories.

The rich monarchies of the Gulf can spend their way out of trouble, and are doing so. Saudi Arabia, for example, has announced plans to spend $70 billion on low-cost housing. Syria, with about the same size population, can only dream of such figures. Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, highly prosperous sheikdoms with vast sovereign wealth funds, have promised to help Tunisia surmount its current difficulties. Money has also gone to Egypt, Oman and Yemen, a country of special concern to Saudi Arabia. Syria, too, will need bailing out if the crisis continues. But on whom can it rely? If times get really hard, its Iranian ally might well help out with a billion or two. But Iran has its own problems.

The Syrian economy can probably stumble along for several more months without imperiling the regime. Syria has proved it can withstand sanctions, mainly because, unlike most Arab countries, it can largely feed itself—this year’s wheat crop is estimated at 3.6 million tons. With an oil output of 380,000 barrels per day, and plenty of gas, it also has a measure of energy autonomy. Although Europe is moving closer to a ban on imports of Syrian oil, imposing a worldwide ban would be difficult. In short, for all its faults and weaknesses, the regime is no pushover.

Assad’s Assets

Bashar al-Assad is in deep trouble, but it does not yet look terminal. After the NATO intervention in Libya—not to mention the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—no external power, and surely no Western country, has an appetite for military intervention. Russia has started to express its alarm at what its Syrian friends are doing, but it will almost certainly block condemnation of Syria at the UN Security Council, as will China. And Syria is too central to the stability of the eastern Arab world for any of the neighboring Arab states to be in a hurry to destabilize it. While the Saudis and several other Gulf states have recalled their ambassadors, and the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council have urged Assad to stop the killing, they have not called for him to step down.

Compared with other Arab countries that have experienced this year’s revolutionary wave, Syria is something of a special case. Tunisia, for example, is geographically largely immune from the boisterous currents of Arab politics (although it has had to take in refugees from Libya). Events in Libya, too, violent as they have been, have had little impact on the Arab world. Even Egypt’s revolution has not so far radically changed the Arab political map. Egypt is still self-absorbed, trying to sort out its own immense problems. It will no doubt in the future have a major impact on the Arab world, and on Arab-Israeli relations, but not quite yet.

Syria, in contrast, lies at the heart of the politics of the eastern Arab world. It is on the fault line of the Sunni-Shiite divide. It is Iran’s main Arab ally. It is Israel’s most obdurate opponent. It was, until the present crisis, the linchpin of Turkey’s Arab policy. As Turkey’s relations with Israel cooled, a Turkish-Syrian alliance was formed that has been of great importance for the region’s geopolitics. Strains have arisen because of the brutality of Syria’s security forces, but Turkey has by no means abandoned Syria. It would like to play a key role in stabilizing the situation, and has urged Assad to discipline his forces and stop the killing.

Syria is still the dominant external influence in Lebanon, in alliance with Hezbollah, the strongest party and the most powerful armed force in that country. Israel and the United States continue to demonize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, whereas it is, in fact, no more than a Shiite resistance movement, which managed to evict Israel from Southern Lebanon after a twenty-two-year occupation (1978–2000). Indeed, it was Israel’s occupation that created Hezbollah. To Israel’s fury, Hezbollah has acquired a minimal capability to deter further Israeli aggression; it demonstrated its strength when Israel last invaded Lebanon, in 2006. Israel would dearly like to disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, which in the past three decades has been the main obstacle to its regional hegemony. But it would not be easy to do so without incurring grave risks.

Hezbollah has attracted some criticism, especially from Syria’s opponents in Lebanon, for siding with Assad’s repression. Its heroic image of confronting Israel has been somewhat dented. But it remains true that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have together shouldered the confrontation with Israel and the United States ever since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty removed Egypt from the Arab equation and exposed the rest of the region to Israeli power. This was evident in 1982. In the same year that the Syrian army perpetrated the massacre at Hama, Israel invaded Lebanon, killing more than 17,000 people in an attempt to destroy the PLO and wrest Lebanon from Syria’s sphere of influence, bringing it into Israel’s orbit. Had Israel been successful, Syria’s security would have been fatally undermined and Israel would have reigned supreme in the Levant. However, the late Hafez al-Assad managed to thwart the Israeli plan. He used to claim it was one of his greatest triumphs. It protected Syria and kept Lebanon in the Arab camp.

All these many relationships—with friends as well as enemies—would risk unraveling if the Assad regime were to fall. This is the great worry in the region and beyond, and is one reason Bashar al-Assad may yet survive.

If the protests in Syria become more threatening and the killing continues, no one should expect the regime to go down without a fight. Indeed, few regimes are ready to commit political suicide or willingly surrender to their enemies, especially when severe retribution is threatened. Under father and son, the Assad regime has lasted for more than four decades, survived many a crisis and seen off many an enemy. In this, its ruthlessness is no different from that of others.

China had its Tiananmen Square massacre and Russia its bitter war in Chechnya. Iran crushed the Green Movement, which tried to topple President Ahmadinejad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has cast aspersions on Assad’s legitimacy and called on the international community to stop doing business with Syria, but Syrians know very well that America’s record in hunting down and destroying its enemies is no better than their own, and perhaps a good deal worse. When it was attacked on 9/11, that great bastion of democracy invaded Afghanistan in 2001, then Iraq in 2003 on fraudulent, trumped-up charges. Hundreds of thousands died, and several million were internally displaced or forced to flee abroad. Syria still plays host to more than 1 million Iraqi refugees, victims of America’s war.

As violence intensifies in Syria, the frightening specter looms of a bloody sectarian settling of accounts. It is already a case of kill or be killed. That is why all those who care about the Syrian people and about regional stability should work to ensure that a national dialogue take place as soon as possible, with the aim of bringing about a transition of power by democratic means rather than by civil war.

This article appeared in the September 12, 2011 edition of The Nation.