One month after the uprisings began in Syria, I wrote that President Bashar Assad had a choice: “Continue to convey an image of an impotent dictator... or display bold leadership and vision in order to use the opportunity of the unrest to institute basic reforms.”
In his May 19 remarks on the Middle East, President Barack Obama posited a similar choice for the Syrian regime, stating, “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead [a transition to democracy], or get out of the way.”
It is now clear that Assad has made his choice. With over 1,400 Syrians killed, approximately 10,000 more fleeing the country and as many languishing in jail, it is too late for Assad to redeem himself. And yet the international community remains impotent. Without meaningful action, Assad is likely to seek dangerous and desperate measures to maintain power, and Syria could become engulfed in the kind of prolonged, internecine sectarian violence that serves as a gaping scar of instability affecting the entire region.
THE BEGINNING of the end for Assad may be found in the northern city of Jisr al-Shugour. There, Assad’s regime claimed that 120 Syrian soldiers were killed by violent demonstrators. However, the widespread reports from the thousands of Syrians who fled the city to nearby Turkey tell a different tale: that the officers died after deserting the military and fighting their former comrades- in-arms. The Assad regime’s response – to essentially level half the city in a brutal show of force – recalls the horrors of the infamous 1982 massacre at Hama. However, whereas Assad’s father Hafez was successful in using overwhelming violence to quiet dissent, signs of military mutiny today suggest that any such success by the younger Assad will be short-lived.
As in Tunisia and Egypt, once the military turns on the government, its
downfall becomes imminent. While the Syrian military’s commanders are of
Assad’s minority-ruling Alawite sect, most conscripts are Sunni. These
soldiers know that they are under careful watch for any signs of dissent
– with lethal consequences. But as the indiscriminate violence against
civilians grows, it is only a matter of time before soldiers begin
defecting en masse.
Of course, Assad will do everything in his power to avoid such a
scenario. The provocative marching of Syrians to the border with Israel
is just one indication of his need to deflect attention from the
atrocities occurring in his country. As he becomes desperate, he could
resort to a more direct conflict with Israel, believing this could unite
the Syrian people in support of his government.
But this is a delusion. Assad has done too much to be able to pull the wool over his people’s eyes any longer.
They will delight in the fall of his regime. He might also increase
support for terror acts that could shunt attention away from Damascus,
while seeking greater assistance from Iran and its nearby proxy,
Hezbollah. But this, too, could serve as an invitation to Israel to
finish off his regime.
Soon, Assad will realize that he has no options left, and he may regret
not living up to his empty rhetorical promises of reform. He may also
realize that the only way he will be allowed to die as the ruler of
Syria, like his father, is at the hands of the enraged Syrian citizenry.
It is no longer a question of whether Assad will fall – it is a matter
of when. And it is a matter of what happens after he leaves. Syria’s
various conflicting sects – Alawite, Sunni, Kurd and Shi’ite, among
others – could be a recipe for disaster. With the Alawites making up
just over 10 percent of the Syrian population, the retribution against
the elites could be severe. Already, sectarian violence has sparked in
the country. The economic plunge accompanying the current unrest will
only exacerbate these tensions further.
In the absence of any authority, Iran and the terror groups it supports
will be in a unique position to consolidate influence within the
country. With Assad leaning heavily on the Islamic Republic, Iran has a
window into the current dynamics in Syria that the Western world does
not. Furthermore, it is not inconceivable that Iran would send Hezbollah
– or its own troops – in an effort to save the Assad regime or install
one favorable to Tehran’s interests. Faced with the strengthening of
Iranian influence along its border, the potential for a renewed
Israel-Hezbollah clash could be intensified. Meanwhile, with refugees
flooding Turkey, Ankara may intrude on Syrian territory to stem the tide
of unrest from crossing its own border.
The instability and uncertainty that will follow the fall of Assad is
likely to mirror Iraq- or Lebanon-style sectarian warfare, complicated
by neighboring actors seeking to fill the vacuum.
THE QUESTION that then emerges is, how can Syria be eased from Assad’s
grasp without descending into such chaos? Opposition groups have met in
Turkey and have sought to coalesce into a 31-member transitional council
that would steward Syria from Assad’s regime to a semblance of
democracy. However, no visible leader has emerged. That is because until
a few months ago, there was virtually no Syrian opposition; it had been
stamped out entirely by the Assad regime.
The challenges facing the formation of any shadow government are large.
But if the opposition is to succeed, it will need the support of the
Today, the international community is failing miserably to do anything about the slaughter of the Syrian people.
The Arab League has long been without influence in Damascus, with Assad
choosing to align himself with Tehran against the wishes of his Arab
counterparts. Yet the lack of any Arab voice standing up for the Syrian
people has been shameful. Whereas the league played a critical role in
calling for the ouster of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the only vanilla
statement that Arab League chief – and Egyptian presidential candidate –
Amr Moussa could muster in this case was that “there is a worry in the
Arab world and in the region concerning the events in Syria.”
The lack of Arab leadership only increases the likelihood that Iran will pick up the pieces upon Assad’s fall.
Meanwhile, the United States has been no better. Three months after the
uprising began, the US has yet to call directly for Assad’s ouster, and
has not so much as withdrawn its ambassador from Damascus. Its inability
to act has further diminished American credibility and influence in the
region while increasingly appearing hypocritical and weak. Together
with France and Britain, the US has been unable to advance a resolution
condemning Syria at the United Nations. Russia and China, in a new low
for international diplomacy, shamefully refuse even to discuss the
matter, as dozens of Syrians die each day.
SO WHAT can be done? The US and those in the international community,
including the European Union, who presume to stand up for the rights of
the Syrian people must create policies that combine coercive actions and
quiet diplomacy to oust Assad and lay the groundwork for a less
volatile future. This must include new, crippling sanctions targeting a
much broader swathe of Syrian officials and robust support for the
nascent Syrian opposition movement. It should also include diplomacy
that offers Assad and his cronies a way to relinquish power without
sending the nation into prolonged chaos and destruction.
Turkey can play an especially vital role. Its ties with Syria have
strengthened in recent years, with open borders and greater trade
relations. But after once calling Assad his “brother,” newly reelected
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly admonished the Syrian
government, recently stating that the Syrian army’s 4th Division,
commanded by Assad’s brother Maher, “doesn’t behave like humans.”
The Turkish role has become even more urgent due to the fact that in a
speech to his nation last Monday, Assad once again missed the
opportunity to face reality and address the real grievances of his
people. Although he acknowledged that there were some peaceful
protesters with legitimate concerns, he once again blamed much of the
violence on vandals and outlaws and radical blasphemous intellectuals.
Assad once held promise as a young Arab leader at the cross-section of
the Middle East, vowing reform and holding many of the keys to
stability, security, peace and prosperity in the region. He has
squandered all of his opportunities. Instead of leadership, he has shown
a new level of arrogance and brutality.
The obnoxious belief of the Assad clan that it can rule in perpetuity
without a modicum of consent from the Syrian people is nothing short of
revolting. Assad may not be allowing journalists to enter his country,
but the world is indeed watching – and he can no longer hide.
Sadly, it remains to be seen whether world leaders are capable of doing anything about it.
The writer is adjunct professor of
international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He
teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.