Assad has run out of friends, and out of time – Rime Allaf*
The Syrian regime has its back against the wall now that its people have found their voice, says Rime Allaf.
Up until a few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom in the Middle East was that the Arab Spring had run into the stifling heat of an unexpectedly early summer. Dictators prematurely departing their eternal thrones was, Arab potentates and their allies had decided, the kind of trend that needed stopping – as was the notion of civilians thinking they could dictate their own destiny.
Sure, the cumbersome Gaddafi would be removed – eventually – but other revolutions would be stopped before they gained traction, whether by persuasion, dissuasion or repression. The wishes of millions of Yemenis were ignored; peaceful protests in Bahrain were brutally squashed (with the blessing of leaders around the region, and beyond); and numerous other demonstrations were quickly controlled.
As for Syria, there was no need even for protest: Bashar al-Assad had already brought in economic reforms to address the grievances that sparked the uprisings in Tunis and Cairo. His country was stable, he told the Wall Street Journal, because his government’s policies were so closely linked to the beliefs of the people.
There was one problem, however: this was far from enough for the parents of 15 schoolboys in Daraa, who had the audacity to object to the jailing and torturing of their children by the Syrian regime, after they dared to scrawl anti-government slogans on the city’s walls. The result was an uprising that has proved impossible to quell, despite Assad receiving the declared support of most Arab leaders – including the Saudi and Bahraini kings, returning the favour – and the initial silence of the international powers, who hoped that the problem would quickly resolve itself.
Not only have seasoned observers been confounded, but both friends and foes of Assad find themselves in completely uncharted territory. After decades of docility from the Syrian people – partly because of their fear of the regime following the horrific massacre of Hama in 1982, and partly because they genuinely did support its regional stances – they are suddenly unafraid, unbeaten and seemingly unstoppable.
In diplomatic terms, it may seem strange that a government that has been condemned and criticised so often should pose such a dilemma to its critics. But Syria’s shifting position in the region makes its situation – and the effects of any intervention – especially problematic.
Take US-Syrian relations. These had been rocky for decades, but there was a détente in the Nineties, the era of the Middle East peace process, and a modus operandi was reached on various issues, including Lebanon. Under Bush, the relationship turned from cordial to icy, and then outright hostile after the US invasion of Iraq and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, which many blamed on Syria.
By the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in 2006, there is no doubt that regime change in Syria was being openly pursued by the US, Saudi Arabia and France, to name but a few. Many thought the process would take mere weeks, and that it would be a simple matter to install the awaiting team of Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former vice-president and the regime’s highest-profile defector to date.
However, when Israel proved unable to defeat Hizbollah militarily, it handed a huge political victory to Syria, the movement’s main supporter, and strengthened the regime’s position. Many countries switched, therefore, to a strategy of engagement: the lead was taken by France, with the support of increasingly influential regional players such as Turkey and Qatar, which had also been cultivating their ties with Iran. The traditional Saudi-Syrian-Egyptian axis disappeared, replaced by a new alliance to balance Saudi Arabia.
Ironically, however, it is the countries that eased Syria’s post-Hariri isolation that have been on the receiving end of its hostility. One by one, the Syrian regime has managed – quite needlessly – to turn Qatar, Turkey and France from influential allies into influential critics. And while Assad’s Ba’athist government continues to claim that it is the only guarantor of a secular state in the face of alleged Islamism, its only remaining allies are religious-based regimes such as Iran, or non-state actors such as Hizbollah.
With no regime-in-waiting to reassure foreign powers, the people of the Syrian spring are dealing the cards themselves – and the regime is suddenly realising that it cannot survive as it did in the Eighties, with only Iran as a powerful friend. Nor can it depend on its population’s support, even if the uprising ends tomorrow. This is why, after weeks of accusations and insults directed at those who have dared criticise it, Syria is now trying to flatter Qatar (by singing the praises of Al Jazeera, which it owns) and Turkey (by suddenly appointing the deputy prime minister as ambassador to Ankara), in the hope that bygones can be bygones.
But even with another reshuffling of its alliances, the regime’s survival is no longer dependent merely on the good graces of its neighbours. Nor can it rely on its latest brutal clampdowns on a succession of Syrian towns under the guise of fighting armed infiltrators. The Syrian people want to decide how their country is run: vague promises of “reform” in return for their renewed silence are not an option any more. And if the regime does not end the violence, violence might end the regime.
* Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House