Above the Fray: It is too late for Assad

The instability that will follow the fall of Assad is likely to mirror Iraq- or Lebanon-style warfare.

Assad speaking 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Assad speaking 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
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 international community.
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.