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[Dehai-WN] Agenceglobal.com: Can the Assad Regime Survive?

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Tue, 17 Jan 2012 22:29:42 +0100

Can the Assad Regime Survive?

by Patrick Seale

Released: 17 Jan 2012


President Bashar al-Assad of Syria does not seem to be in any immediate
danger of collapse or overthrow. In spite of confronting a popular uprising
at home and severe pressures from abroad, he has -- for the moment at least
-- weathered the storm. His difficulties, however, are immense. In a speech
on 10 January he described the crisis he is facing as “a battle
unprecedented in Syria’s modern history.”

Several authoritative sources, both inside and outside Syria, share the view
that, having held his enemies at bay since last March, Assad stands a good
chance of survival for several more months. His longer-term prospects,
however, remain uncertain.

As a skilful tactician, he has played for time. His agreement to allow in
Arab League monitors has relieved him of some pressure for a month, and
possibly two. In dealing with the protesters, he has used carrot as well as
stick, such as his recent amnesty for political prisoners, his offer of an
immediate dialogue with the opposition, and his renewed promise of a revised
Constitution, to be put to an early referendum, followed by multi-party
elections in the early summer. Two new parties were granted licenses this

Assad’s long-term survival, however will depend, sources say, on whether
Syria’s close ally, Iran manages to stand firm. Already under crippling
Western sanctions, Iran faces what looks like an attempt, not just to halt
its programme of uranium enrichment -- which Israel sees as a challenge to
its own nuclear weapons monopoly – but to change the Tehran regime
altogether. The United States and Israel -- supported by a number of
European and Arab nations, who have joined in for their own commercial,
sectarian or strategic interests -- have launched a determined assault on
the tripartite alliance of Tehran, Damascus and Hizballah. The crime of this
trio is to have dared challenge America’s military hegemony in the Gulf and
Israel’s military hegemony in the Levant. The three allies – Iran, Syria and
Hizballah – know that they stand or fall together. The battle is likely to
be fierce.


Iran is facing a systematic campaign aimed at subverting its nuclear
facilities by cyber attack, the murder of its scientists, and the
undermining of its economy by a boycott of its oil exports and Central Bank.
Israel and its American friends are also sparing no effort to trigger a U.S.
attack on Iran – much as they pushed the United States into invading and
destroying Iraq. If Iran cracks under the pressure of sanctions and military
threats, Syria could fall. Hizballah in turn, stripped of its external
patrons, could then face another Israeli attempt to destroy it, as in 2006.

Bashar al-Assad’s attention is focussed on the danger to Syria from this
‘foreign conspiracy’. As he explained in his speech, it is only the latest
of many such conspiracies: When Iraq was invaded in 2003, “Syria was
threatened with bombing and invasion”; the same enemies exploited the
assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005 to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon
and attempt to bring down the Syrian regime; in 2006, Israel invaded
Lebanon; in 2007, it bombed an alleged Syrian nuclear facility; in 2008, it
attacked Gaza, each time exposing Syria to danger. But, Assad declared
defiantly, “We will never allow them to defeat Syria... Resistance is the
core of our identity.”

Assad sees his domestic opponents as allies of his foreign enemies, rather
than as legitimate protesters against corruption, police brutality, severe
youth unemployment and a lack of basic freedoms. That some of these
opponents have taken up arms, killed soldiers and policemen and destroyed
public property has served him well. He is resolved to “strike these
murderous terrorists hard... There can be no compromise with terrorism.”

Such is his mindset, and such his justification for the bloody repression of
the past ten months -- the large-scale killings, mass imprisonment, beatings
and torture. These brutal methods have opened up a profound rift in Syrian
society; they have sharpened sectarian tensions. They have gravely damaged
Syria’s image and its international reputation. The internal wound will be
difficult to heal. How will Syrians learn to live together again? One Syrian
source compared the situation with that which the French faced when, once
the German occupation had ended, résistants and collaborators set about
rebuilding their fractured society after World War 2.

Tourism in Syria has collapsed, the stock market has lost 50% of its value
and the exchange rate for the dollar has fallen on the black market from 49
to 67 Syrian pounds. Fuel supplies are running short and the budget deficit
has surged. But Syria enjoys a large measure of food autonomy and, if it
tightens its belt, can probably survive sanctions and boycotts.

The most important asset which keeps the regime afloat is the continuing
loyalty of the army and security services. Defections have been few. So long
as this remains the case, the opposition will be unable to topple the
regime. Nor can the opposition count on foreign military intervention: No
Western or Arab nation is prepared to use force. Turkey might possibly
consider intervening if its own vital interests were threatened -- by, say,
active Syrian support for the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party which has taken
up arms against the Turkish state.

At the UN Security Council, Russia and China will protect Syria by vetoing
any resolution authorising the use of force. Syria can probably also count
on Iraq, Algeria and Sudan to prevent any internationalisation of the
crisis. America’s decline – its retreat from Iraq, its failure in
Afghanistan, its weariness with foreign adventures, its defence cuts -- are
also much to Syria’s advantage.

The regime has two other important advantages: the opposition’s failure to
unite behind a single leader or a single political project, and the fact
that a good slice of the population still supports the regime. Minorities
such as Alawis, Christians and Druze, as well as civil servants, officers,
leading merchants in Damascus and Aleppo, and the new bourgeoisie --
comprising some tens of thousands of people, created by the neo-liberal
economic model of the past decade -- are all wary of regime change. They do
not feel represented by the street protesters or the exiled opposition.

When Syrians see the terrible devastation caused by the civil wars on their
borders in Lebanon and Iraq, they dread suffering the same fate. The fear of
a sectarian civil war is on everyone’s mind. The Syrian Muslim Brothers, by
far the strongest element in the opposition, are evidently waiting to avenge
the crushing of their uprising at Hama in 1982. Beginning in the late 1970s,
they mounted a terrorist campaign against the regime of Hafiz al-Assad,
Bashar’s father. In one of their terrorist operations, 83 Alawi cadets were
gunned down in Aleppo in 1979. When they seized Hama, they massacred Ba‘th
party members and officials. The government sent in troops to retake the
town, killing over 10,000 people. The exact numbers are in dispute, but the
spectre of Hama hangs over the scene to this day, inflaming passions on both

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest
book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of
the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

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