Cracks In The House Of Assad: Why A Supposedly Stable Regime Looks Fragile
By Michael Bröning
On April 21, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared an end to 48 years of emergency law. Protests escalated despite this effort to quell them. And today, Damascus is in a higher state of emergency than ever before. The course of Syria’s protests has taken many observers by surprise. I argued on ForeignAffairs.com in March 2011 that the regime’s “credible threat to use force” and the alliance that the country’s anti-American, minority ruling cadre had built with the military and elite to sustain its rule would “prevent oppositional forces from gaining a critical mass in the near future.” The fear of brutal repression and sectarian tensions, I wrote, would encourage Syrians to “pin their hopes on a slow but stable process of reform.”
These factors have indeed delayed pro-democracy activism. Whereas social networks mobilized hundreds of thousands of demonstrators quickly in Egypt and Tunisia, in Syria the momentum has been building slowly. Protests have erupted nationwide, but some would-be activists remain deterred by the military’s threat of force. Calls for a nation-wide general strike remained largely unanswered this week. At the same time, the positive examples of change in Egypt and Tunisia further infuriated the thousands who did decide to take to the streets. And the regime’s violent reaction to the demonstrators’ initially modest demands has hardened their resolve. As time has gone on, they have moved from calling for the end of Syria’s emergency law and condemning the regime’s corruption to calling for the outright dismantling of the country’s system of government. Momentum has shifted against the Syrian regime, and Assad has proved unable to escape the demand for political change sweeping the region.
Repeating the failed approach of his ousted counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Assad has responded to the protests both by attempting to delegitimize them as a “foreign conspiracy” and by offering limited concessions in the hopes of subduing the masses. His promises to lift the ban on teachers in public schools wearing Islamic headscarves, to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds, to dismiss the government, and to end the unpopular emergency law might well have appeased calls for change had they been offered at the outset. But given the regime’s delayed response these steps were seen as disingenuous.
Moreover, Assad’s concessions lack sincerity. After he dismissed the government on March 29, he formed a new one, in which 9 of 25 ministers had previously served on his cabinet. And when the emergency law was lifted, the government announced its intention to introduce an “anti-terrorism” law with similar, if not identical, stipulations. These haphazard measures have only fanned the flames they were meant to smother. The Assad regime spent considerable political capital on empty declarations, missing opportunities to defuse the conflict with genuine reform.
As I predicted, Assad’s response to growing calls for regime change has been ruthless. In late April, he dispatched waves of heavily armored troops to centers of opposition -- Deraa, Douma, and Banias -- resulting in scores of civilian casualties. Last Friday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cited reports according to which up to 800 people have been killed since mid-March. Thousands have been arrested and are currently being held in makeshift prisons. In this respect, Assad’s approach mirrors that of Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose violent response to protests in Libya did not quell the opposition but bolstered it, not least by compelling the international community to act. Although pressure mounts for the international community to intervene in Syria, Syrians remain highly opposed to outside help -- a remarkable and fundamental difference from the Libyans.
Many now question just how long the Syrian military will continue to be loyal to Assad. The opposition has reported sporadic military defections and mutinies, but these are difficult to substantiate given the virtual absence of objective reporting from the country. For its part, the elite Republican Guard still appears ready and willing to stop the uprising with force, but it is an open question whether the military, which is largely made up of conscripts, will continue to serve as a willing tool of oppression. Although widespread mutiny or a coup d’état seems unlikely at present, prolonged bloodshed may very well make this scenario a reality. The regime’s attempts in the last few days to counter protests with less-than-lethal force, such as widespread arbitrary arrests, and its orders that troops not fire on protesters after Friday prayers indicate that it is well aware of the possibility of defections. Until now, however, the violent crack-down continues in parallel.
Despite the surge in protests, Assad still enjoys relatively strong support among minorities such as the Alawi community and the influential Christian community. Indeed, the regime may yet be able to save itself by embarking on a fast and comprehensive opening of the political system -- including constitutional change and new party laws that reduce the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on power. More important than further promises of change, however, would be clear steps toward the actual implementation of reform -- which, as of yet, have been missing. Assad might take a page from Jordanian King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein’s skilled maneuvering. He faces a similar set of challenges. As in Syria, protests initially focused on social issues and widespread corruption but ultimately culminated in calls for constitutional reform. Yet King Abdullah has addressed pressing issues more convincingly than his Syrian counterpart, reaching out to tribes, engaging Palestinian refugees, and visiting marginalized regions. He has personally overseen royal committees on reform and national dialogue. It is unclear how fundamental his reforms will actually be, but his approach has proven more fruitful than the Syrian combination of ambiguous promises and Qaddafi-style oppression with dubious chances of success. The fact that last Friday’s announcement to implement “a comprehensive national dialogue” in Syria was not issued by the President but merely by a government minister again indicates that presidential interest in reform is still largely lacking.
Although British Foreign Secretary William Hague was certainly correct in noting in April that it was not too late for Syria to “do the right thing” by embracing reform, Assad’s window of opportunity is rapidly closing. With each week of continued violence and increasing numbers of civilian casualties, it is more uncertain whether the Syrian people will continue to agree with Whitehall’s assessment.
Enthusiastic calls to “cheer as Syria’s people shake the House That Assad Built,” as Jeff Jacoby argued in The Boston Globe on March 30, in reference to my ForeignAffairs.com article, are certainly understandable. But the need to support the courage of protesters must be balanced against the remaining -- yet increasingly unlikely -- hope that reforms could work and against plausible reasons to fear a violent collapse of authority in an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous society such as Syria. After all, given Syria’s lack of a unified opposition, the regime’s collapse might result in an explosion of sectarian conflict. Jordan and Turkey’s attempts at the end of April to push Assad toward a radical, last-minute change of course were not coincidental. Ankara and Amman are increasingly skeptical about the regime’s readiness to reform, but they understand what the Assad regime’s implosion would mean regionally.
Beyond a fear of the unknown, stretched Western military capacity and the nature of the Syrian uprising put hard limits on what Western powers could do to bolster the opposition. The sanctions that Europe and the United States imposed this week on Syrian leaders are important symbolic steps but do not provide protesters with tangible support. Likewise, imposing a no-fly zone was crucial to stop Qaddafi’s air attacks on Libyan rebels, but would be ineffective against Assad’s favored tactic: mass arrests of activists, as was carried out in Damascus, Homs, and Latakia. As unsatisfactory as it may sound, change in Syria cannot be attained with a quick-fix military intervention. The House of Assad must continue to be shaken from the ground.
MICHAEL BRÖNING is Director of the East Jerusalem office of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German political foundation affiliated with Germany’s Social Democratic Party. He is the author of The Politics of Change in Palestine: State-Building and Non-Violent Resistance.
Assad Won't Reform: What The Recent Violence Means For Syria (And The United States)
By Tony Badran
When demonstrations first began in Deraa, Syria, on March 15, many observers assumed that they would remain localized and small in scale -- first, because the protests were said to be driven by specific regional factors, such as the city’s tribal customs and solidarity , and second, because the regime’s reputation for brutality would deter many from taking part. But it was not long before these assumptions were proved wrong: on Friday, March 25, demonstrations erupted in a number of cities and towns across the country. They have only spread further since. Some observers -- including members of the Obama administration -- seem to believe that the protests are still small enough for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to overcome if he undertakes political reform. Yet disaffection with the regime is now too widespread for such measures to work, as I wrote for ForeignAffairs.com (“Syria’s Assad No Longer in Vogue”), “With its sources of legitimacy badly undermined, brute force is the only tool left to secure the regime’s rule.”
Assad seems to know as much. He reacted to the March 25th outbreak with controlled ferocity -- sniping at protesters from rooftops, kidnapping suspected participants, and carrying out other acts of intimidation and collective punishment. At the same time, he worked to maintain his international image by reacting forcefully enough to provoke widespread fear but not so much as to invite foreign sanctions or, worse, intervention. And as a sop to the international community, Assad promised a number of Potemkin reforms, such as lifting the emergency laws (while simultaneously working to introduce a substantively similar antiterrorism one) and forming committees to study new election procedures. These steps would not appease Syrians but did give realists in the United States and European at least a fig leaf of cover as they advocated continued engagement with the regime. After having referred to Assad as a “different leader” and a “reformer” on March 27, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood by this characterization in a May 6 interview, where she stated that Assad had “an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda.”
In addition to walking a fine line between cracking down on protesters and appeasing the international community, Assad tried to prevent the development of a rebel leadership by detaining or killing anyone who was a logical candidate for the role. If the opposition remained headless, he believed, he could treat the rallies in each city as expressions of local grievances, which could be addressed individually. For example, at the start of April, Assad attempted to pacify the Kurdish population of Syria by offering citizenship to an undetermined number of so-called “stateless Kurds”. Pro-regime newspapers in Lebanon applauded this effort, claiming that the move would add the Kurds to Assad’s base of support, where they would join the Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Ismaili minorities who have banded together out of a shared fear of Sunni domination.
In other words, what was presented as a reform was in fact a tactic to divide and rule, playing on the country’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Such methods have fed the sectarian dimension of the protests. The early April demonstrations in cities along the Mediterranean -- Latakia, Tartous, and Baniyas -- are examples. The Alawite population, the social bedrock of the regime, is centered around the mountains above Latakia, and the cities along the coast are mixed Sunni and Alawite. When Sunni protesters took to the streets to call for the end of the Assad regime, they were confronted not only with state-sanctioned violence but also armed Alawite gangs. These gangs are known as the shabbiha and enjoy the backing of powerful members of the Assad clan and the security services. Assad has only inflamed sectarian fears further with a whisper campaign that paints the protesters as Salafists, or Sunni extremists.
Quietly playing the sectarian card has undoubtedly drummed up some support among minorities but it is doubtful whether that support alone will sustain the Assad family rule. Indeed, when rallies engulfed the suburbs of Damascus on April 15, the fully national character of the protests could no longer be disputed. That day, thousands attempted to descend on the center of Damascus. The security services, however, were waiting in large numbers and repelled them. Meanwhile, protesters in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, hoping to emulate Egypt’s demonstrations in Tahrir Square, attempted to stage a sit-in in the main square, where security forces raided and opened fire on them.
With controlled ferocity having failed to end the uprising, the regime had no choice but to escalate the violence in late April and early May. It laid siege to centers of protest such as Deraa, Baniyas, and Homs, ringing the towns with tanks, shelling them, and cutting off all communication, food, water, and medical aid. The security forces then went on door-to-door raids searching for activists. Residents of Deraa have since uncovered at least one mass grave there containing 13 mutilated bodies. Close to 1,100 civilian deaths were verified by reputable human rights organizations, but many thousands more were either detained or are simply missing.
The regime’s violent escalation has had an impact -- many leading activists and organizers have been arrested and tortured, and sieges have quieted protests in some cities –- but it has failed to snuff out the opposition, which returns as soon as security forces pull back. The stalemate has permanently damaged the regime, removing much of the doubt about Assad’s true intentions. To emphasize the point, on May 11, Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and the second-most powerful man in the country, explicitly told The New York Times that the regime will “fight until the end.” The message was clear: There will be no dialogue with the regime’s opponents, and there will be no political reform. If the pressure persists, Makhlouf said, the stability of Syria’s neighbors – namely, Israel -- might be threatened. Less than a week after Makhlouf’s warning, the regime made good on his promise: On May 16, it orchestrated a march of Palestinian refugees to Syria’s border with the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, where they attempted to breach the border fence and cross into Israel, forcing the Israeli army to fire at them, killing two and wounding several others.
Assad’s transparent attempt in the Golan to strong-arm the United States forced the Obama administration to react. Before then, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had repeatedly expressed her belief that the regime intended to follow a reformist path. On May 17, however, she bowed to reality, declaring that Assad’s “heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions.” For the first time, Clinton moved beyond the language of dialogue with the regime and began to call for “a process of credible and inclusive democratic change” -- terminology that is demonstrably more supportive of the Syrian opposition’s demands. On the following day, May 18, the administration took a further step in this direction by sanctioning Assad and a number of other high-ranking officials.
Still, Assad’s tactic of preventing the emergence of potential opposition leaders has been effective and has fueled doubts in Washington about anyone else leading a transition, as well as about the staying power of the protestors. Assad, of course, has made a point of emphasizing that as bad as his regime might be, there is no credible alternative to it. And a day after his administration sanctioned Assad, U.S. President Barack Obama, in a speech about the Arab uprising, reiterated calls for Assad to either lead the transition or “get out of the way.” Then in a CBS interview on May 19, Clinton, though defensive, defended her belief in Assad as a reformer, arguing that he “has said a lot of things that you didn’t hear from other leaders in the region about the kind of changes he would like to see.” Washington has surely realized that the regime will not reform, but by refusing to call for him to step down outright, it has demonstrated that it has not found a viable solution. It is clear that although a major shift has taken place, the administration does not yet know how to craft an alternative to its policy of engagement.
The regime’s propaganda machine has been painting the uprising as close to over, arguing that Assad has the upper hand. But the protests have not died down. The latest testimony to the protesters’ determination came last Friday. Protestors dubbed it “Azadi/Freedom Friday,” and they marched in large numbers countrywide. Some in Latakia carried signs that read: “Syrian official media: ‘It’s over.’ The Syrian people’s media: ‘It’s just begun.’” Moreover, YouTube videos have emerged showing protesters in Hama and a suburb of Damascus standing up to armed security agents and even chasing them away with stones. And Assad’s divide-rule-policies appear to have failed: the latest wave of protests even included Assyrian Christians in the northeast city of Qamishli.
Now the Obama administration must come to terms with the fact that dealing with Assad is no longer an option, and begin crafting a coherent policy to lay the groundwork for a post-Assad future.
TONY BADRAN is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Obama's Push-Pull Strategy: How Washington Should Plan For A Post-Assad Syria
By Mara E. Karlin and Andrew J. Tabler
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama gave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad an ultimatum: Lead a transition to democracy, or, in Obama's words, "get out of the way." The speech recognized an inconvenient truth for Washington: Although the Assad regime has not yet reached a tipping point like that of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes, nearly three months of protests across Syria have shaken the Assad regime to its core. Government forces have killed 1,000 protesters and arrested another 10,000, yet demonstrators continue to fill the streets demanding the fall of the government. Assad is now caught in a dilemma: He can continue relying on his fellow Alawite security chiefs and the minority system they dominate to persecute the predominately Sunni protesters, or he can enact deep political reforms that could convince the protesters to return home but would end the Alawite-led system on which he so heavily relies. Either way, the Assad regime as it has existed for more than four decades is disintegrating.
Now, to follow through on his bold declaration last week, Obama and his advisers must plan for a Syria without the Assad regime as it currently exists. To do so, Washington should try to push Assad from power while pulling in a new leadership.
As a start of this "push" strategy, Obama must go even further than he did in his speech last week and publicly state that Assad must go. Such a move would signal that the United States will no longer deal with Assad. Put bluntly, high-level U.S. officials would no longer plead for Assad's support on questions of U.S. interest in the region, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon.
Sanctions are another way to weaken Assad's already loosening grip on power. Obama has issued an executive order levying sanctions on Syrian officials responsible for human rights abuses during the current crackdown. Last Wednesday, Washington added Assad himself to the order. Although Assad and other Syrian officials have few assets in the United States, multinational banks and financial firms, which risk losing their U.S. business if they associate with individuals under U.S. sanction, have now been forced to cut ties. This effect has been compounded by recent European Union sanctions against Assad and 22 other regime officials involved in putting down the protests.
The United States could also exploit the vulnerability of Syria's oil sector, a key node of power for the Assad regime. Washington should press EU member states to join in the United States' ban (passed as part of the U.S.A. Patriot Act) on transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria, the country's largest state-owned bank and the chief vehicle for recycling Syrian oil receipts. The bank is known to keep a portion of its approximately $20 billion in hard currency reserves in short-term accounts at European banks. Freezing those funds would threaten the regime's economic viability and undermine its support from the Syrian business elite. (Assad's much-maligned cousin, Rami Makhlouf -- who himself was designated in a 2008 executive order and whose businesses were further designated under last week's executive order -- would particularly suffer, given his substantial investments in Syrian oil production.)
Furthermore, the United States could invoke some combination of the remaining tenets of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. (The act was first enacted by Congress in 2003 to sanction Syria for its pernicious meddling in Iraq and Lebanon, support for terror groups, and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.) Those tenets include a ban on U.S. investment in Syria, a ban on the travel of Syrian diplomats beyond a 25-mile radius of Washington and New York, and a downgrading of diplomatic relations.
These bilateral moves would capitalize on the growing European and Turkish consensus that the status quo in Syria must change. Such a united front would show Arab allies, most notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt (both of which have no love for Assad), that Washington is serious about its "push" strategy and could entice them to actively join the anti-Assad bandwagon. Also, a concerted, multilateral effort against the Assad regime would help strip away Russian and Chinese objections to a UN Security Council resolution condemning the violence, which, in turn, could spur UN action to bring Assad before the International Criminal Court. Continued pressure against the regime for its attempted nuclear program and its violations of UN Security Council resolutions targeting Damascus' support for nonstate actors in Lebanon (including Hezbollah, other militias, and al Qaeda affiliates) would further isolate its few supporters, given the Assad regime's increasingly bloody crackdown and unwillingness to reform.
Within Syria, such moves would send clear signals about Washington's intentions, which, until last week's executive order directed at Assad and other top officials, were seen with some disappointment by Syrian oppositionists. Most important, such strong U.S. action would encourage Syria's central players to place their bets on a future without Assad. In particular, the merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo, whose economic patronage has historically buoyed the Assad regime and given it a veneer of Sunni legitimacy, could be convinced that Assad is no longer the safest or most dependable protector of their commercial interests. They could be further distanced from Assad by additional sanctions on a wider net of Syrian businessmen under Obama's executive order. Similarly, Syrian military officers (some of whom are Sunni) as well as the army's enlisted rank and file (which is largely Sunni) could be convinced to question seriously Assad's ability to survive. This would help raise the possibility of Sunni members of the Syrian military stepping in to save the country by ousting the ruling family.
As the United States works to push Assad from power, it should also be looking to pull in new political forces to replace him. Above all else, Syrians themselves must be at the forefront of any regime change in Damascus. Washington should, therefore, begin an active dialogue with the members of the National Initiative for Change, a declaration signed in April by nearly 200 prominent figures in the Syrian diaspora. Syria's opposition groups have historically been divided by ideology, ethnicity, and egos; the NIC, by contrast, is an inclusive body whose diverse constituencies make it better able to deliver real change. Focusing attention on the NIC would also allow Washington to distance itself from organizations with anti-Western sentiments, such as various anti-imperial leftist parties and the Muslim Brotherhood.
To further assist the Syrian opposition, Washington should, at a minimum, find a way to offer courses in political organizing and rule-of-law training, perhaps conducted by the National Democratic Institute or the International Republican Institute. Although the Syrian regime will surely oppose such training, conducting courses outside of Syria or over the Internet are realistic alternatives. The pervasive use of the Internet in Syria, and the proxy servers that Syrians regularly use to get around the regime's Internet firewall, would make it possible to carry out these operations on the ground, as is clear from the deluge of protest footage secretly sent out of the country over the Web each day. Washington should also encourage the Syrian opposition to assemble a conference in the region in which a clear, multiconfessional leadership structure is elected (preferably a team of three or so individuals who are empowered to make decisions on the opposition's behalf) and the initial outlines of priorities for transition are established. The upcoming Syrian opposition conference to be held in Antalya, Turkey, on May 31 could serve as an appropriate venue for these decisions. If the conference elects a respected, diverse leadership and adopts principles broadly consonant with U.S. values, including respecting minority rights and secularism, then Washington should quickly arrange meetings with the newly elected leadership.
This element of the policy requires Obama's personal investment: In calling for new leadership in Syria, the White House must think about what that leadership should look like by setting clear parameters for cooperation and not simply picking favorites. Any new, post-Assad leadership in Syria should be transparent, respect human rights, and reflect an accurate representation of the country's sectarian makeup (in other words, not the current minority system).
This is why the U.S. government's list of priorities regarding Syria needs to be switched from an emphasis on the peace process to one centered on domestic Syrian affairs. Until a few weeks ago, Washington based its Syria strategy almost wholly on the conclusion of a Syria-Israel peace treaty that would require Assad to break off relations with Iran and Hezbollah. Now, Washington should focus on bringing about a government led by the country's Sunni majority, which would naturally create considerable tension with or a break in Syria's alliance with Shiite-dominated Iran.
Given the current standoff between the Assad regime and Syria's protestors, the fall of the Assad regime will be much bloodier -- and take much longer -- than the collapse of the dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. But it will fall eventually. In the meantime, a push-and-pull strategy will provide Washington with multiple tools to bring about an orderly end to one of the United States' most problematic regional adversaries.
MARA E. KARLIN was Levant Director at the Pentagon in 2006-7 and Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in 2007-9. ANDREW J. TABLER is Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of the forthcoming book In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle With Syria