Friday, September 2, 2011

The Signs Are Not Good For Assad Rule

By Rami G. Khouri

The signs are not good for the Syrian regime headed by President Bashar Assad and his tightly knit network of family members, security agencies, Baath Party members and business associates. In the past week, a steady stream of incidents and signals have strengthened the trend pertaining for several months now: The regime is increasingly isolated at home and abroad, but remains hunkered down and ready to fight to the end. The exact nature of that endgame is unclear, but seems imminent now, especially in view of recent events.
The Iranian foreign minister publically said that the Assad regime respond to the legitimate political grievances of Syrian citizens, meaning that the current military crackdown is not sufficient to calm things down and maintain regime incumbency. The secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, also spoke out of the need for all parties to work together to resolve the tensions in Syria peacefully. When Damascus’ two closest allies in the world – Iran and Hizbullah – publically acknowledge that the problems in Syria are deep and cannot be resolved by current hard security measures, this is a monumental signal that Syria is in deep trouble.

Also in the region, Turkey has continued to pressure the Assad government and its president, Abdullah Gul, went so far as to say that if it were forced to choose between supporting the leaders or the people of Syria, Ankara would support the people. The Arab League – that old flat tire of Arab legitimacy and collective action – even spoke out about the dangers of the current Syrian government strategy, and hopes to send its secretary-general to Damascus to propose a plan to resolve the conflict.
The Europeans moved closer to imposing a full embargo on trading in Syrian oil and energy products, while the United States and the United Nations Security Council continued their endeavors to find new ways to pressure Syria.

Especially frightening was a report put out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights about whether the Syrian regime’s response to the citizen revolt had included acts that can be classified as crimes against humanity. In other words, Assad regime figures may be inching toward indictment by the International Criminal Court.
Most significant were three moves by Syrians themselves. Opposition groups met in Turkey and announced the formation of a national transitional council; some militant groups in Syria said they would seek arms in order to resist the state militarily; and, other groups in Syria asked the international community for protection from the military retributions of the Assad regime. These were all small, individual, isolated steps that have not created a cascading effect yet; yet when combined with regional and international moves, they clearly show how the Syrian government and wider ruling apparatus are slowly being encircled by three concentric circles of domestic, regional and international pressure or outright opposition.

Many, including myself, have argued for months that the Syrian government is strong in its immediate moorings and support bases, and enjoys legitimacy among many Syrians. The problem that Assad and his system now face is that he has wasted much of that support and legitimacy, and is now “strong” in a very different and much more vulnerable manner.
The Syrian regime is strong now in the same way that a company of soldiers is strong when grouped together in a fortified camp that is totally encircled by hostile forces. The regime still has decisive leaders, many security services, a core political and demographic base of support at home, plenty of tanks and ammunition, billions of dollars of money, and tens of thousands of foot soldiers. All these assets, however, are bunched into an increasingly smaller and smaller space, with fewer and fewer regional or international connections of any sort, and are confronting mass popular rallies that steadily grow in frequency, size, bravado, and political intensity around the country. Using battlefield tanks to kill your own civilians inside cities is not a sign of strength, but rather of savagery born of desperation.

The Syrian regime is facing a significant and troubling trend. It continues to face almost daily actions by important actors at home and abroad that expose how its attempt to resolve the crisis through a combination of hard security and soft political reform dialogue has totally failed. In fact, these actions have only aggravated the three most critical dynamics that will define the regime’s future – its declining legitimacy and credibility with many of its own people; the rising intensity of the challenge from Syrians at home and abroad; and the diplomatic pressures applied by regional and global powers.
Syria’s regime is likely to – and is able to – persist in this mode for months, until either the pressures against it subside or its own ability to resist cracks. Neither of these is imminent today, but one will prevail as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow. If the Syrian regime can break its isolation from the encircling forces penning it in, it might have a chance to orchestrate a gradual change to a more open and liberal system of governance. The likelihood of that happening is zero.

This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 02/09/2011

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