The apparently imminent eclipse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has re-ignited
hope among some Western commentators concerning the so-called Arab Spring. The
entry of Libyan rebels to Tripoli is being depicted in some circles as the
removal of a major obstacle to the onward march toward freedom alleged to be
taking place this year throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Some of the
more enthusiastic observers are now turning their hopeful gaze toward Syria.
They hope that with liberty victorious in Libya, the Assad regime will be the
next to fall.
These hopes are mistaken on two levels.
First, it is
mistaken to maintain that a great battle for liberty is currently under way in
the Arabic-speaking world. Sober analysts of the region have long noted that the
key stand-off in the main countries of the Arab world is between sclerotic and
dictatorial regimes, and popular Islamist movements seeking to overthrow
Nothing has yet happened in the Arab Spring to radically alter this
picture. Rather, what has changed is the relative strength of these rival
forces. Until this year, the regimes had largely managed to contain the Islamist
forces. Today in Egypt, this is no longer the case. In Libya, too, the balance
looks about to be upended.
Second, the Assad regime in Syria still stands
a fair chance of surviving the current revolt against its rule. The eclipse of
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi will not cause Bashar Assad to alter his assessment of
his own chances of survival. This is because he is aware of the very different
arrangement of forces regarding Syria, both within the country itself and
The Assad regime is undoubtedly beleaguered. Its claim
to any legitimacy was always paper-thin. Its information outlets blared out
endless propaganda against Israel, the West and, famously, the “half-men” of the
Westernaligned Arab countries. In practice, it rested on the narrowest of bases:
the support of Syrian Alawites, and the acquiescence, with greater or lesser
degrees of consent or fear, of all other sections of the population.
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events of the last few months have torn through this thin veneer. The Assad
regime now rules over the large majority of the Syrian population by open
International anger at the regime is coalescing. US President
Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas
Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Catherine
Ashton all issued statements last week saying that Assad should step
Even the United Nations Human Rights Council turned against Assad
this week. The council, which for years maintained a polite silence (or
concentrated on condemning Israel) as the regime jailed and disappeared its
opponents, now suspects Assad of possible crimes against humanity. A team of
redoubtable inspectors are to be sent to Syria to look for evidence of
The sanctions are intensifying. The US has already imposed a ban on
Syrian oil imports. EU countries are currently drawing up plans for a similar
embargo. The oil sector accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of Syrian
state revenue, so sanctions would be significant.
A draft UN resolution
drawn up by the US and the EU will call for sanctions against Assad himself, 22
officials and the country’s General Intelligence Directorate.
all this, the regime shows no signs of yielding, and apparently remains
confident that it can continue its rule. Why? Is Assad now simply delusional,
like an earlier dictator who spent his last days in his bunker marshalling
phantom divisions that existed only on paper?
He is not. Ramadan, the month that
was supposed to witness the mass protests that would take the revolt against
Assad to new heights, is almost finished. But Assad is still there. His security
forces and Alawite irregulars are still moving from town to town, energetically
butchering their fellow countrymen.
At the beginning of the Syrian
uprising, it was clear that for as long as Assad maintained the following
elements, he stood a good chance of survival: unity of the regime elite, unity
of the security forces, the geographically limited nature of the uprising, the
support of allies, a weak international response, and a divided
Of these, items one to three are largely intact. There are no
indications yet of cracks in the regime elite’s stance of unity. Evidence of
strains in the security forces is patchy and appears partial at best. The
Alawite elite around Assad appear convinced that their choice remains to survive
with the dictator or go down with him.
The vital, practical support of
Iran is also there. Tehran considers Assad’s survival a key strategic goal.
Russia and China voted against the condemnation of Assad in the UN Human Rights
The dimensions of the uprising have spread. But the two main
cities of Damascus and Aleppo remain largely untouched by it. The absence of
ferment in the commercial center of Aleppo is vital for the regime.
differing international response remains the central factor keeping Assad from a
Gaddafi-like fate. If NATO air power were to be deployed against him, it would
be a game-changer. This looks highly unlikely.
And finally, despite
efforts at unity, the opposition remains divided. Attempts in Turkey to create a
single “National Council” for the opposition appear to have foundered. The
Syrian Kurds are staying away, incensed by what they perceive as the Arab
nationalist tones of other elements. The strong representation of the Muslim
Brotherhood in the unity discussions in Istanbul should also be
None of this guarantees the survival of the Assad family
dictatorship. But the prospect is for a long, drawn-out struggle ahead, rather
than a rapid resolution of the matter. In this struggle, the key opposing
forces are the Iransupported regime, and a divided opposition in which the most
determined elements are Sunni Islamist and local tribal forces. Those still
hoping that this situation will deliver democracy to Syria by immaculate
conception are likely to be disappointed.
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