Assad finds his margin to maneuver


By Tony Badran


One of the more curious things about Bashar al-Assad’s latest rambling speech on Tuesday was his aggressive and typically condescending attack against his Gulf Arab foes. Coming 10 days before the Arab League monitoring mission is due to file its report, the timing of the Syrian dictator’s tirade was noteworthy. It seems that Assad, recognizing the divisions within the League’s ranks, estimated that the Arab body is paralyzed to move against him. With the international community equally immobilized, Assad is convinced he has a margin to maneuver.

What has allowed for Assad’s triumphalist posturing has been Russia’s unwavering support at the UN Security Council. With Moscow’s help, Assad succeeded in freezing the earlier momentum of the Arab camp, spearheaded by Qatar, which had been pushing to refer the Syrian case to the Security Council. Furthermore, having exacerbated Arab divisions by agreeing to the monitor mission, Assad is confident that there will be no consensus at the League to push for international action. 
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is waiting for the monitors’ report before determining how to proceed. Leaks have emerged about the options the administration is mulling, and those continue to revolve mainly around plans for a strong Security Council resolution. However, this option remains unlikely in the near future, given the likelihood of continued Russian resistance. In other words, there seems to be nothing drastic on the horizon that would change the existing dynamic in Syria. 
What has been remarkable about the administration’s policy is its apparent failure to anticipate the current quandary. In looking for the Arab League to assume leadership, Washington badly misread Arab dynamics. In that sense, betting so much on the Arab initiative was effectively a self-laid trap, of which Russia took full advantage.
The result of this approach has been to cede the initiative to the Russians. One thing Moscow has apparently tried to do is sponsor a national-unity government bringing together Assad and elements of the opposition, namely the National Coordination Body (NCB) led by Haitham Mannaa. This plan had Iranian support as well, as Tehran had reached out to Mannaa months ago. 
This proposal was the other notable thing Assad referenced in his speech. While claiming openness to dialogue with the opposition, Assad set out to define his interlocutors and the terms of the dialogue. On the one hand, he rejected dialogue with an opposition “that sits in [foreign] embassies” – a reference to the Syrian National Council (SNC). On the other hand, Assad added, “We don’t want an opposition that talks to us in secret, so as not to upset anyone.”
The latter reference was to the NCB. In order not to discredit themselves, Mannaa and the NCB hid behind the Arab League initiative’s call for a national dialogue, and for a unified opposition, which Mannaa wanted to become the body that dialogues with the regime over the transitional period, as he told LBCI on Tuesday.
Assad wanted to corner the NCB into either entering into dialogue on the regime’s terms, or to push it to reject dialogue, thereby shifting the blame onto it. Indeed, following the speech, an NCB spokesperson rejected participating in a dialogue, let alone a joint government, with the regime before it ends all violence and detentions, releases all political prisoners, and allows peaceful protests – none of which will happen, of course.
Moreover, it’s possible that Assad also sought to impose his terms on the Russian initiative. Rejecting the moniker “national-unity government,” he instead called for an “expanded” government that would include oppositionists, alongside technocrats, loyalists and “independents.” In other words, Assad will not even allow for parity between him and the opposition. With Moscow’s proclivity to criticize the opposition’s supposed rigidity, the Syrian president may well figure that the Russians might continue to pressure the NCB. Either way, he buys more time.
It is obvious then that Assad still believes he can set the parameters of any initiative – as he continues to strike the protest movement “with an iron fist.” This cockiness is typical for Assad, but such tactics are also all he’s got. Furthermore, with the US still shying away from real leadership, the vacuum is being filled with such problematic proposals that only provide Assad with more time to act with impunity.
In the end, what is most alarming is the fact that the Obama administration continues not to advance a serious policy option. It also seems unsure how to proceed following the crashing failure of the Arab League initiative on which it had banked. 
Having allowed others to call the shots, Washington has wasted time and must now operate in an even messier context. This all but ensures that the situation in Syria will get a lot worse, as Assad, playing a zero-sum game, feels he has little to fear in terms of active intervention to stop him.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article was first published on