Jun 28th 2011

It is too late for Assad

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

One month after the uprisings began in Syria, I wrote that President Basher al-Assad had a choice: "Continue to convey an image of an inept dictator ... or display bold leadership and vision in order to use the opportunity of the unrest to institute basic reforms..." In his May 19th remarks on the Middle East, President Obama posited a similar choice for the Syria regime, stating: "President Assad now has a choice: He can lead [a transition to democracy], or get out of the way." In a speech to his nation last Monday, President Assad once again missed the opportunity to face reality and address the real grievances of his people. Although he acknowledged that there are some peaceful protesters with legitimate concerns, he once again blamed much of the unrest and violence on "vandals and outlaws and radical blasphemous intellectuals."

Most observers dismissed Assad's speech as being too broad with no specifics about reforms, giving the protesters no hope for substantive change for the better in the immediate future. Since his speech, instead of showing restraints and beginning an honest national dialogue, Assad continues to use brutal force to subdue the protesters losing what's left of his credibility. It has become clear that Assad has made his choice. With over 1,400 Syrians killed, more than 10,000 fleeing the country, and as many languishing in jail, it is too late for Assad to redeem himself. And yet, the international community remains feeble, doing nothing about it. Without meaningful action, Assad is likely to seek dangerous and desperate measures to maintain power, and Syria could become engulfed in the kind of prolonged, internecine sectarian violence that serves as a gaping pattern of instability affecting the entire region.

The beginning of the end for Assad may be found in the northern city of Jisr Al-Shugour. There, Assad's regime claimed that 120 Syrian soldiers were killed by violent demonstrators. However, the widespread reports from thousands of Syrians who fled the city to nearby Turkey tell a different tale: that the officers were killed after deserting the military and fighting their former comrades-in-arms. The Assad regime's response, which was to essentially level half the city in a brutal show of force, recalls the horrors of the infamous 1982 massacre at Hama. Yet whereas Bashar's father Hafez was then successful in using overwhelming violence to quiet dissent, signs of military mutiny today suggest that any success by Assad in quelling the unrest will be short-lived. It will be only a question of time when the Syrian youth will rise again, except this time no force, however brutal, will be able to suppress them.

As in Tunisia and Egypt, once the military turns on the government, its downfall becomes imminent. While the Syrian military's commanders are from Assad's minority-ruling Alawite sect, most conscripts are Sunni. These soldiers know that they are under careful watch for any signs of dissent, which carry lethal consequences. But as the indiscriminate violence against civilians grows and the military is stretched too thin, there are strong indications that soldiers will begin to defect en masse, and Assad's regime will finally reach the brink of collapse.

Of course, Assad will do everything in his power to avoid such a scenario. The provocative marching of Syrians to the border with Israel a few weeks ago is just one indication of Assad's need to distract attention from the atrocities occurring in his country. As Assad becomes desperate, he could resort to a more direct confrontation with Israel, believing that a Syrian-Israeli conflict could unite the Syrian people in support of his government. But this is a delusion. Assad can no longer expect to deceive the Syrian people, who will delight at the fall of his regime. Assad might also increase support for terror acts that could deviate attention from Damascus, while seeking greater assistance from Iran and its nearby proxy, Hezbollah. But this too could serve as an invitation to Israel to finish off his regime. Soon, Assad will realize that he has no options left, and he may regret not living up to his empty rhetorical promises of reform. He may also realize that the only way in which he will be allowed to die as the ruler of Syria, like his father, is if he dies at the hands of the enraged Syrian citizenry.

It is no longer a question if Bashar al-Assad will fall-it is a matter of when. Now the matter becomes what happens after Assad leaves. Syria's dissatisfied and conflicting sects: Alawite, Sunni, Kurd, and Shi'ite, among others, devoid of strong leadership, could be a recipe for a disaster. With the minority-ruling Alawites making up just over 10 percent of the Syrian population, the retribution against the elites could be severe. Already, sectarian violence has sparked in the country. The economic plunge that is accompanying the current unrest will only exacerbate these tensions further. In the absence of any authority, Iran and the terror groups it supports will be in a unique position to consolidate influence within the country. With Assad leaning heavily on the Islamic Republic, Iran has a unique window into the current dynamics in Syria which the Western world does not. Furthermore, it is conceivable that Iran would deploy Hezbollah, or even its own troops, in an effort to save the Assad regime or to install one that is favorable to the interests of Tehran. Faced with the strengthening of Iranian influence along its border, the potential for a renewed Israel-Hezbollah clash could be intensified. Meanwhile, with refugees flooding Turkey, Ankara may intrude on Syrian territory to stem the tide of unrest from crossing the Turkey-Syria border. The instability and uncertainty that will follow the fall of Assad is likely to mirror Iraqi or Lebanese sectarian warfare, complicated by neighboring states like Israel and Iran who will take action to ensure security needs or even to fill the power vacuum.

The question that emerges now is how can Syria be eased from Assad's grasp without descending into chaos? Opposition groups have met in Turkey seeking to coalesce into a 31 member transitional council that would serve as a transitional body able to steward Syria from Assad's regime to a democratic state. However, no visible leader has emerged. The efforts to make a unified opposition still prove to be weak, as a recent meeting in Damascus produced no results, and only invited criticism from outside opposition. This is because until a few months ago, there was virtually no Syrian opposition, as it had been stamped out entirely by the Assad regime. This complicates the newly formed opposition's efforts. So too does the fact that the various figures in this opposition, representing the various Syrian sects, have little in common beyond a desire to see the overthrow of the Assad government. Furthermore, the uprising has largely been led by young people who are likely unaware of opposition dissidents who are abroad and not participating in the day-to-day battles with Assad's forces, but who could cause discord as efforts unfold.

The challenges facing the formation of any shadow government are large. But if the opposition is to succeed, it will need the support of the international community. Today, the international community is failing miserably to do anything about the slaughter of the Syrian people. The Arab League has long been without influence in Damascus, with Assad choosing to align himself with Tehran against the wishes of his Arab counterparts. But the lack of any Arab voice standing up for the Syrian people has been shameful. Whereas the Arab League played a critical role in calling for the ousting of Muammer al-Gaddafi, with regard to Syria, the only benign statement that Arab League chief and Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa could recently muster was that "There is a worry in the Arab world and in the region concerning the events in Syria."

The lack of Arab leadership only makes the likelihood that Iran will pick up the pieces upon Assad's fall even greater. Meanwhile, the United States has not done any better. Now three months into the uprising, the United States has yet to directly call for Assad's ousting, and has not so much as withdrawn the U.S. Ambassador from Damascus. Its inability to act has further diminished American credibility and influence in the region while increasingly appearing hypocritical and weak. Together with France and Britain, the United States has been unable to advance a resolution condemning Syria at the United Nations. Russia and China, in a new low for international diplomacy, shamefully refuse to even discuss the matter, as dozens of Syrians die each day.

So what can be done? The United States and those in the international community, including the European Union, who presume to stand up for the rights of the Syrian people, must create policies that combine coercive actions and quiet diplomacy to oust Assad and lay the groundwork for a less volatile future for the Syrian nation. This must include new crippling sanctions targeting a much broader swath of Syrian officials and robust support for the nascent Syrian opposition movement. It should also include diplomacy that offers Assad and his cronies a way to relinquish power in exchange for asylum before sending the nation into prolonged chaos and destruction. Turkey can play an especially vital role in these efforts.

Turkey-Syria ties have strengthened in recent years, with open borders and increased trade. But after once calling Assad his "brother," newly re-elected Prime Minister Teyyep Erdogan has publicly admonished the Syrian government, recently stating that the troops in the Syrian army's 4th division, commanded by Assad's brother Maher, "don't behave like humans." In addition, after a recent phone conversation with Syrian leadership, Erdogan lamented that the regime was taking the situation "lightly." Turkish influence in Syria, as well as its stakes in a stable Syria, is considerable. And with Turkey's desire to play a leadership role in the region, now could be a time for the United States and the Europeans to further encourage Turkey to do so by serving as a mediator to bring Assad, and Syria, away from further catastrophe.

Bashar al-Assad once held promise as a young Arab leader at the cross-section of the Middle East, promising reform and holding many of the keys to stability, security, peace and prosperity in the region. He has squandered all of his opportunities. Instead of leadership, he has shown a new level of arrogance and brutality. The obnoxious belief of the Assad clan and his counterparts in Libya and Yemen that they can rule in perpetuity without a modicum of consent by their respective people is nothing short of revolting. Assad may not be allowing journalists to enter Syria, but the world is indeed watching -and he can no longer hide his brutality. Sadly, it remains to be seen whether world leaders are capable of doing anything about it.

*A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on June 24th, 2011 and is available online here: http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=226325

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