Assad’s ship is sinking, even if predicting the end is risky – by Michel Nehme
Domestically, the mutiny in the Syrian army is slowly accelerating. It is beginning to pose a tangible threat to the military establishment, despite tight control by Baathist officers. Syria’s economy is gradually deteriorating – an indication of a long process that ultimately will topple the regime. The issue now is not whether the regime has been able to withstand or escape the storm, but rather the sense that the regime is slowly and daily getting weaker. Yet when it will finally collapse is not something that can be predicted, due to a variety of regional and international considerations.
Regionally, Syria is part of the first stage of a war on Iran. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah reportedly said last summer that “nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.” Iran, accordingly, is pressing President Bashar Assad to do whatever it takes to stay in power and preserve one of Tehran’s most important relationships in the Middle East. Iran’s leaders are trying to fine-tune Assad’s political and economic conduct and are now urging him to consider talks with protesters or risk heading down a path with few escape routes.
Assad, aware of Iran’s desperate need to bolster him, appears to be following his own rules in trying to brutally crush a mass revolt that has now begun to spread into the security forces. Thus he is compounding Iran’s concerns about the effect on its own internal opposition, which has been mostly dormant since the Arab revolts began in Tunisia. Iranian officials are well aware that they cannot afford the international fallout that would be engendered by sending large-scale military forces to aid Assad. Still, it is likely that Iran has provided military and financial assistance to Damascus.
Turkey is well aware of the new regional reality and has been keenly watching events unfold in Syria, lest its neighbor’s violence spill over the border. With a bloody status quo in the Syrian crisis having held for months, Turkey has moved from close friend of Damascus to harsh critic. It is aware that any intervention in Syria would be different from the one in Libya, since Russia and China have made it clear that there will be no more United Nations Security Council no-fly zone resolutions. This significantly amplifies the role of regional players like Turkey. Ankara may have declared it does not welcome a military solution to the Syrian crisis, but it has not ruled one out either, playing a wait-and-see game. If there is massive migration from its troubled neighbor, Turkey says it will have to protect its own people.
Saudi Arabia has been cautious. It recognizes that the special ties between Tehran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Damascus complicate the situation. They render military intervention in Syria and even international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program more problematic, lest they spark a wider conflict that might be much more difficult to contain.
Thus Riyadh recognizes that Arab calls for sending troops to Syria to protect civilians sound more like a moral obligation than a practical one; Syria will never allow such a deployment to happen. This has prompted the Arab League to take the case to the Security Council, which will also find itself in a bind because of Russia’s support for Syria. The Security Council’s dilemma may in turn force the U.N. General Assembly, where there is no veto, to adopt a peace resolution to intervene militarily based on a majority vote.
Yet who would be prepared at this time to take military action against the Syrian regime? The simplest military steps that could be invoked are to impose a no-fly zone, create a military buffer zone or secure safe passage for civilians. Any of these steps would require a large military force. Certainly Washington does not have the political will in view of the upcoming presidential elections. Accordingly, the Syrian regime can bide its time and continue to crush the opposition while the international community is still discussing sanctions.
One alternative for the United States and its allies, particularly the United Kingdom and France, is to fund and help structure the opposition. Yet there exists no proficient opposition movement: It remains a diverse group, representing the country’s ideological, sectarian and generational divides.
Finally, Russia’s pretentious support for Syria’s beleaguered government cannot be explained solely by an earnest desire to help its long-time partner and biggest importer of its conventional weapons in the Middle East. Russia’s stance also reflects a politically inspired eagerness to confront the West, as well as the Kremlin’s fears of Russia’s own fast-growing internal opposition movement in the wake of last December’s parliamentary vote, which was blemished by accusations of fraud and ballot-stuffing.
How long before the Syrian regime falls? Predictions are always risky, especially in a fast-moving situation. Still, one can say with some confidence that even if the Syrian regime were to make a serious and honest effort to meet the demands of the opposition, this would come too late to ensure its survival. In any scenario, it is doomed to face continued rebellion. The new factor is that the opposition has broken the barrier of fear of the brutal regime, even as the killing of protesters destroys the regime’s legitimacy. While this process might be relatively long and bloody, if it persists it will ultimately devastate the regime.
Michel Nehme is director of University International Affairs at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. This commentary first appeared at
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