Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Syrian Intifada, A Grim Update

By Michael Young
Six months into its uprising, Syria is facing ruinous stalemate. President Bashar Assad can thank his late father, Hafez, for having first installed the magnificent engine of repression that guarantees his political survival. And yet Syria’s system is incapable of gradual amelioration, which is at the heart of the Assads’ dilemma.
Syria today is like the picture of Dorian Gray. For many years the Assad regime was sought after by numerous Arab and Western governments, even by prominent nongovernmental organizations, for being regarded as an essential key to resolving regional problems. The evidence suggested otherwise, but few apparently seemed to care. Today the picture is out in full view. What the world sees is the sordidness and depravity behind the ersatz fa├žade.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is correct in saying that Assad will not triumph over the Syrian intifada. But the mad band ruling Syria can hold out for a while, and will do its utmost to transform the crisis in a way that ensures it has a fighting chance of staying in power. If that doesn’t happen, a plausible alternative would be for it to fall back on the Alawite heartland, whose access points the regime put a lock on months ago – from Jisr al-Shoughour in the north to the area of Tell Kalakh along Lebanon’s border.
This week two news items revealed Assad’s mounting difficulties. The Financial Times reported that the Syrian authorities had instructed foreign companies to sharply cut back their oil production. Syria has been unable to bypass the European Union embargo on its exports of crude, so that the country’s oil storage capacity is filling up. Despite claims by Syrian officials that the embargo would fail, the newspaper noted “not a single cargo of Syrian crude has left the nation’s main export oil ports this month, according to shipping data.”
And Monday, the Syrian government adopted a budget for next year that will increase spending by 58 percent when compared to 2011. A Syrian economist, Nabil Sukkar, expressed his astonishment to Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper. “Where are they going to get the money from to pay for this? That’s the big question,” Sukkar asked. He warned: “Our concern is that they are going to start printing money to meet their expenditure, which will lead to serious inflation.” This is precisely what European diplomats based in Damascus had predicted would happen in a report early this year.
As the regime’s revenues decline, its patronage and influence network will shrink. Resources will be concentrated on crushing the revolt. At the same time, economic hardship will hit the Syrian population, which has been exhausted by months of upheaval. Yet here is the danger. As the situation worsens, it is improbable that the Assads will gain the upper hand in a decisive way. What is more likely to happen is a radicalization of the conflict, something that may already be inevitable in the face of the utter savagery displayed by the Syrian army, security services, and predominantly Alawite armed gangs.
All future options may be bad for Syria. If the army falls apart, then we will move squarely toward armed resistance and civil war; and if the army remains relatively united and the largely peaceful protests continue, then we could see open-ended carnage. Both situations have a better than even chance of ceding the initiative to those wanting to pick up weapons. That may be the Assads’ wager. They feel that such a development would favor Sunni Islamists. An armed Islamist rebellion would polarize Syria, rally many inside Syria and out to the regime’s side, and justify a policy of eradication, as in Algeria during the 1990s, against an enemy the Assads essentially created.
Some observers believe the Assads are hoping to impose a somewhat less cynical solution: to contain the demonstrations until fatigue sets in, after which the regime will introduce cosmetic reforms that divide the Syrian opposition while simultaneously silencing the international community. If that’s indeed the regime’s aspiration, it relies on a particularly optimistic reading of the dynamics in Syria. Something is fundamentally broken in the country. That Assad can take his people back to where they were seven months ago is fanciful.
That said, the Syrian president has room to maneuver, with outside pressure on him still bearable for now, despite the ominous pinch of European sanctions. The Arab League has been catatonic on Syria, it’s so-called plan to resolve the Syrian emergency having little momentum. The United Nations Security Council for weeks has been debating a resolution on Syria, yet one reportedly that will not punish Damascus. The United States has ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Assads, but has otherwise done virtually nothing to bring the different parties together behind a consensual transition plan. And Turkey has officially separated from Damascus, but is restrained by anxiety that a Syrian collapse will lead to a confrontation between Ankara and Syria’s Kurds, which will have domestic repercussions.
A leitmotif adopted by the Arab League, but also the ventriloquist dummies of the Assad regime and even some opposition members, is that there must be no outside involvement in Syrian affairs. The reality is that Bashar Assad and his clique will only be ousted through a combination of domestic and international efforts, hopefully short of military action. The Assads thrive on conflict. Everything must be done to deny them the oxygen of violence.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 29/09/2011
-Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster)

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