Monday, July 25, 2011
Assad Foundations Eroded By Waves Of Revolt
By David Gardner
Seen from a distance – which is how the world mostly has seen Syria since the Assad regime shut the door on foreign journalists this spring – the Syrian uprising looks like a stalemate. More protesters swarm into the streets across the country every Friday. But President Bashar al-Assad and his family are still there, his security forces still willing to kill to stay in power.
Yet, erosion is eating away at the narrow foundations of a regime pounded by waves of revolt. The savagery of the government’s response, and the zero credibility of the concessions it has made to the protesters, makes it probably more dangerous for them to stop, and risk reprisals, than to carry on and brave repression.
Erosion is a slow, often invisible process, but suddenly, and without warning, a loose boulder can set off an avalanche, a fissured cliff can come down, or a rotting house can collapse – in this case, the House of Assad.
In mid-April, as government forces clamped down hard in two or three towns at a time, another dozen areas would erupt; a senior aide to Mr Assad told allies in Lebanon the regime had decided to end it once and for all “within days”. By mid-June, his forces were still only able to go in hard at three or so locations at once, but now another 100 or more towns and villages would ignite in fury, the escalating repression turning calls for reform into demands for regime change.
Last Friday’s demonstrations were the biggest so far, bursting out all over the country, and, as activists have noted, it is the holy month of Ramadan next month, when mosque attendance could make every day like Friday.
True, there have so far been no mass demonstrations in Damascus, as there were in Tunis and Cairo. But protests have multiplied in the suburbs of the capital, which the regime’s two praetorian units, the Fourth Armoured Division and the Republican Guard, are too overstretched to hold down. When the Alawite minority regime is forced to involve less reliable army units that reflect Syria’s Sunni majority make-up, defections occur, as they did last week in eastern Syria.
If the regime’s repressive capacity is looking finite, its economic foundations are brittle. An already weak economy is slowing to a standstill while tourism, amounting to 13 per cent of gross domestic product in 2010, has collapsed. The Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center last week referred to reports of $20bn leaving the country. Lebanese bankers are sceptical but a lot of capital has fled to Istanbul.
The Assads may be running out of money. The tycoon of the clan, President Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, whose interests, Syrian bankers say, account for more than a third of the economy, is under intensified pressure. A shareholders meeting of Cham Holding, his main business vehicle, was, according to one investor present, unable to elect a new board this month after the outgoing chairman, Nabil al-Kuzbari, was placed on the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control blacklist. Sceptics may regard such sanctions as symbolic. Mr Makhlouf’s nervous shareholders evidently do not agree.
Short of money, the regime is also bereft of friends. Gas-rich Qatar, which had offered funding linked to reform, has all but severed relations with Syria. Other Arab neighbours, wary of Syria’s alliance with Iran and resentful of its long history of meddling in their affairs, may be nervous about what might follow the Assads but are still sitting on the fence. Iran, itself subject to sanctions, has been reluctant to commit cash to Syria, despite recent reports. Turkey, a hitherto valuable ally, has pretty much given up on Mr Assad.
Simultaneous with this, US and European positions are evolving. The high-profile recent visit of the US and French ambassadors to Hama, scene of a massacre by the regime in 1982, was warning it against another bloodbath. Government incitement of protests on the border with Israel, where not a shot had been fired for 38 years, has hardened opinion against Syria in the west, where it had been seen in practical terms as usually a status quo power in the region. That is doubly so now the Assads have shattered the status quo at home.
This article was published in The Financial Times on 25/07/2011