Analysis - Syria's Assad seen ignoring Gaddafis' fate
Mon Nov 21, 2011 6:24pm GMT
By Samia Nakhoul
(Reuters) - The chilling spectacle of Muammar Gaddafi's brutal end last
month and the capture of his son Saif al-Islam this week, far from deterring
Bashar al-Assad, seem to have energised him into redoubling his efforts to
crush Syria's eight-month rebellion.
As the Arab League intensified Assad's isolation by suspending Syria's
membership, defecting soldiers in the Free Syrian Army carried out their
boldest attacks so far at Deraa in the south and on an Air Force
intelligence base near Damascus.
Unconfirmed reports said the rebels also fired rockets at a headquarters of
the ruling Ba'ath party in Damascus, until now firmly locked down by the
regime's security apparatus.
The country of 22 million, convulsed this year by a civil uprising like
those that brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, now appears to be on
the brink of a Libya-style armed insurgency, with arms flowing in from
Lebanon, Jordan and from soldiers who have deserted with their weapons.
Most observers believe Assad will fight it out, playing on fears of a
sectarian war between minorities and the Sunni majority if the country's
complex ethno-sectarian mosaic unravels, and that neither western powers nor
Arab neighbours would risk military intervention to prevent it.
Arab leaders and Syrian opposition figures, with growing support from the
Arab League, are now lobbying for a "Contact Group" for Syria, led by
Britain and France, to help prepare for a transition in the belief that
Assad's days are numbered and preparations to deal with the fall-out are now
"I think we've entered into a new phase. I don't know if it's the final
phase but it is significant because of two things: on the ground there is a
more militarised environment, and in the diplomatic sphere, a more
determined effort which includes Arab cover," Salman Shaikh, Director of the
Brookings Doha Centre, told Reuters.
As Assad expands his military onslaught, which might soon include the use of
air power, Arab leaders want the group to consider contingency plans for no
fly zones and safe havens near the Turkish and Jordanian borders to protect
"The Assads are finished and the dam could burst as soon as next year," one
senior Arab diplomat said. "The Arabs have acted because they know he cannot
There is now, moreover, an Arab, international and Turkish coalition that
has proven to be effective in Libya and will be effective with Syria,
according to Salman Shaikh.
"If you look at the core countries that are driving this: France, Turkey,
Qatar and the U.S. This disengagement and attempt at isolating Syria,
particularly by these countries, is very significant and I think will have,
in the longer run (and it is a long run game) a debilitating effect on the
regime," Shaikh said.
The Arab League said it would follow through with its decision to suspend
Syria, establish contacts with the opposition and examine how the Arab bloc
and the United Nations can protect civilians from military attack.
"An international consensus is emerging with the exception of Russia that
Syria is to blame for the violence," said Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle
Eastern Politics at the London School of Economics.
But the 46-year-old Assad looks set to tough it out. "The conflict will
continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue. Syria will not
bow down," Assad told the Sunday Times.
Most analysts said Assad, who can depend on the loyalty only of two elite
Alawaite units - the Fourth Armoured Division and the Republican Guard -
cannot maintain current military operations without cracks emerging in the
TAKING A GAMBLE
They say Assad is taking a gamble because of his growing deployment of
regular units whose rank and file are Sunnis.
"If you have to move these people around, they are going to get tired ...
They are going to crack," the Arab diplomat said.
Assad, who inherited power from his father Hafez al-Assad 2000, is a member
of the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that amounts
to about 12 percent of the population and dominates the state, the army and
the security services in the majority Sunni Muslim country.
The 260-member Syrian National Council, which is leading the opposition
against the Assads' 41-year rule, said a conference will take place in Egypt
under the auspices of the Arab League, to bring together political factions
and independent figures to plan the transition and set rules for a
"The opposition is more mature now. It is ready to agree on a common
vision," said SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani.
There are many scenarios that could see Assad brought down; none of them
neat and orderly.
Some see an Alawite who is part of the community's hierarchy - but not the
regime's inner circle - moving to oust Assad and his family and, in the
interest of the Alawites and other minorities such as the Christians and
Druze, to embark on an orderly transition towards a new democratic Syria.
"I think efforts to try and pressure the Alawite security core by slapping
sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans with the promise of putting them on
a list for the International Criminal Court in the future is a good thing,
that should concentrate their minds," Shaikh added.
Observers say there are some prominent Alawite figures who could play a role
in a post-Assad Syria while defecting military officers could also be at the
Related to that, there are groups within the opposition working on a
strategic 10-year transition plan.
It involves some sort of a national unity government, which comprises major
blocs and is as inclusive as possible and could last for a couple of years.
This would set the stage for parliamentary elections and a new constitution.
As opposition plans start to crystallise with increased external support,
Assad is trying to present himself as the only shield against a slide into
chaos, Iraq-style sectarian carnage, and the triumph of hardline Islamists
from the Sunni majority.
While the struggle still looks unequal, Assad has already lost the political
battle in cities such as Homs, Hama or in the Idlib and Deraa areas, where
he has only been able to maintain control through overstretched military
Many Syrians have defied the military crackdown to keep up demands for
change, despite bloodshed which the United Nations says has cost 3,500 lives
-- as well as those of 1,100 soldiers and police, according to the
Aside from the human, military and political cost, Assad faces U.S. and
European sanctions against Syria's oil exports and an economic collapse that
is crippling his government.
But nobody believes sanctions alone can bring down Assad.
"I am not suggesting that there's going to be some orderly disintegration of
the regime. It is likely that there will be a continued militarisation and
the regime will be ousted through military means, with the assistance
perhaps of Turkey and other Arab states - perhaps with buffer zones in both
Jordan and Turkey which would be focussed on protecting civilians and
offering a safe haven for those launching attacks," Shaikh said.
The big powers are more united in their campaign to subdue Assad, while
ruling out military intervention.
"A military intervention is not likely and the NATO example of Libya is not
applicable to Syria. Where would they hit? Gaddafi had military bases
entrenched across the country. Any attack on Syria would have reverberations
and reactions in neighboring countries," said Middle East expert Jamil
Armed with a U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilians, Western
powers provided air support to Libyan rebels who toppled Gaddafi, but are
not inclined to repeat the feat in Syria, in a far trickier arena of the
Russia, which believes NATO stretched the U.N. mandate on Libya to embrace
regime-change, firmly opposes any resolution against Syria, where it has its
only permanent Mediterranean port facilities at Tartous.
Assad's own spectre-waving has reinforced the fears of Syria's neighbours -
Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey - about the possibly seismic
consequences of a power shift in a nation on the faultlines of several
Middle Eastern conflicts.
Instability in Syria, an ally of Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah, could spread to
volatile Lebanon or Iraq.
Israel relies on Assad to stabilise their common border, and fears his fall
could herald less predictable rulers.
Undeniably, too, Assad still retains substantial support within his own
Alawite minority, parts of the business elite, Christians and others who
fear that Islamist radicals might come to the fore, and, crucially, army and
security force commanders.
"The Syrian regime is not isolated internally as many would like to believe.
It retains a strong social base of support in major centres like Damascus,
Aleppo and Latakia where 60 percent of the population live," Gerges said.
"There is a real danger that Syria has already descended into a prolonged
conflict no one knows its outcome internally and regionally. I don't see a
way out for the Assad regime. Assad has no exit strategy. This is a fight to
the bitter end for the family, the clan, with the mentality: either I am
going to be killed or I kill my enemy," Gerges said.
There are those who believe that Assad's last real ally, Iran, will help him
"Iran will not give up on Bashar. It is a matter of survival for them too,"
said Mroue. "Iran believes that targeting Syria is a first step in clipping
the wings of the Islamic Republic. The same goes for Hezbollah."
Yet some observers note that the Iranians, struggling with U.N. sanctions
and economic problems of their own, are already making tentative contact
with the Syrian opposition.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
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Received on Mon Nov 21 2011 - 18:23:54 EST