Friday, August 26, 2011

The Alawis Will Determine Bashar's Fate

By Dov Zakheim

   Syrian President Bashar el-Assad
When Nicolae Ceaucescu was brutally executed in 1989, then-Syrian leader Hafez el-Assad took note. Determined not to share the Romanian dictator's fate, he tightened his already vise-like grip on Syria, and never relaxed it until the day he died in 2000. His son, Bashar, whose career as a London-based ophthalmologist came to a sudden end when his brother Basil, heir apparent to the Syrian throne, was killed in a car crash in 1994, never sought to match the elder Assad's ruthlessness until the uprising earlier this year. What Qaddafi threatened to do to his opponents, Assad actually has been doing; but it is only in the past few weeks that the West, including the United States, has done anything more than wring its hands over Syrians who have been either killed or kidnapped (or both)  by Assad's troops and secret police.
Qaddafi's imminent fall has no doubt encouraged the Syrian opposition to continue its nationwide protests. It is unlikely to sway Assad to make any real concessions to the protesters. On the contrary, convinced that the Army still supports him, and much as his father did after Ceaucescu's fall, Bashar can be expected to redouble his efforts to retain his hold over Syria. He may not succeed, however, not because of the growing strength of the opposition, but rather because his Alawi supporters may turn on him.
The Alawis know that they can expect no mercy from the majority Sunni population if the Assad regime falls. They are doubly hated, because of their heretical religion, and their abuse of power. They also know time is running out for them, as it has for Qaddafi and his supporters. Their only hope is to remove Bashar and his entire leadership team and replace them with a seemingly more civilized Alawi face who would who would both be acceptable to the West and, even more important, negotiate with the opposition to ensure the survival of the community. The Alawis may not succeed, but they have few alternatives.
Whatever happens, Iran is likely to be the big loser, and with it Hezbollah as well. That would certainly be the case if the Sunnis took power in Damascus. Even were the Alawis somehow to maintain control, their freedom of maneuver is likely to be far more restricted vis a vis Iran than it has been for the past few decades: a weakened Alawi regime would be more susceptible to Turkish and Arab League pressure.
Washington's policy regarding Syria has toughened in recent days with President Obama's call for Assad's departure and the extension of sanctions to include petroleum purchases. The Europeans, more heavily dependent on Syrian oil, may at last be ready to tighten sanctions as well. Even Russia's opposition to any pressure on Assad is beginning to soften. All of these developments will affect Alawi calculations, much as they are encouraging the Syrian opposition. Ultimately, however, it will be the day of Qaddafi's actual fall that forces the Alawis' hand to dispense with Bashar while they still can. That day surely is not very far off.
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 26/08/2011

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