Syria bleeds -- but Assad still leads
April 06, 2012
The Arab Spring has completed a full cycle of seasons as one year has passed since the first signs of discontent arrived in the Arab streets. In its sweep, it took away the iron-handed dictators like Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi and Saleh, but Assad is still standing his ground firm. The count of the killed, injured, displaced and incarcerated is rising fast as the security forces loyal to the regime show no letup while clamping down hard on the dissidents. Up till now, ten thousand have been killed, one million are in grave need of humanitarian relief, and more than twenty thousand have fled to the neighbouring countries, but Assad is unmoved. Why is he able to maintain his tight grip on the levers of power despite undying protests is the question which warrants a careful study. A combination of factors explains as to why the strong man has been able to fend off the strong winds of change fuelled by the champions of human rights and democracy blowing at full swing all across the region.
If the force of internal pull is somehow not enough to shake the determination of Assad, the external push is not decisive enough to force him to rethink his position. Internally, the regime has been able to manage things in the two largest cities of the country, Damascus and Aleppo, which house half of Syria’s population. The protest is apace in the rest of the cities, and this is a classic case of “centre holds and things are falling apart”. What complicates the issue for Assad is the sectarian makeup of the country where he finds himself on the wrong side of sectarian mosaic as he is from minority Alawite Shi’ite sect, whereas the majority is Sunni. This is what makes it inevitable that sooner or later Assad has to bow before the popular will if not external pressure. Cruelties which are purely meant to deal with the dissidents are now seen as sectarian revenge by the Sunni population as it is in the Sunni districts like Baba Amr where some of the worst killing sprees have occurred. The most lethal weapon available with the regime is now turning against it as crushing the popular demands and wishes, if failed, would come back with vengeance. The writing on the wall is that enough is enough, but the Assad coterie seems prepared to take the matters to their bitter conclusion. The choice is between leaving with a measure of face-saving before the heat of popular convulsion or melting and moulding when it becomes too hot to avoid or escape. Right now the man and his cohorts are blinded by their whimsical obstinacy and wobble between half-hearted external persuasion and full-blown internal insurrection.
Assad is yet to feel the impact of full external involvement on the side of the opposition in Syria as realpolitik prevents the P5 in the UN to project a unified stance. China and Russia are in clear opposition in delivering a word to the Syrian regime to give up, although they have agreed to send a message through the UNSC to strike ceasefire with the hostile elements. The US is more focused on Iran so it does not want to swerve its attention to get involved the way it did in Libya under NATO command. Ms Clinton’s whirlwind visit to the region gave a sharply-worded message to the regime in Syria, but given the lack of attention on the part of the US and the support from Russia and negligence from China, things are not going to change. The Arab countries have clearly demonstrated their incapacity and apathy to pin down Syria partly because they do not have the wherewithal to do so and partly supporting a popular protest in a fellow Arab country does not sync well with the authoritarian regimes in the region. Russia has decided to throw its weight behind the rigid Assad because both countries have preserved their strategic cooperation beyond the vagaries of post-cold war world order. Syria is the only country where Russia has a naval base outside former Soviet territories. Moreover, China and Russia are not willing to go along whatsoever the US is up to, particularly, in the Middle East.
Kofi Annan who presided over a turbulent UN marked by the US flouting its mandate of Iraq invasion in 2003 has been tasked with negotiating a solution with the Assad regime. Some concrete outcome is awaited of this diplomatic venture, but the bottom line is that at best, this mission can hope to freeze the status quo in favour of the regime for the reason that Assad has read the script too well. Anything short of use of force from outside and unflagging opposition from within cannot force him to step down. But here lies the problem that any declaration of war on Syria might ignite the tinder-box which is already half-alight inside the country. The region is fed-up with hosting the heavy footprint of the US and its allies defined by unconvincing Iraq invasion, unconditional support to Israel, undeterred opposition to Iran and unaccomplished mission in Afghanistan. Diplomacy is proving to be lacking teeth ratcheting up decisive pressure on Syria and the latest attempt in this direction was the “friends of Syria conference” in Istanbul at the weekend whose aim was to galvanise the international community to devise a mechanism to aid the opposition and help or force Assad to bring down his stakes so as to let the popular wish prevail. Amid all this din and noise, people are being mowed down and mopped up and the Assad regime is busy weathering the storm blowing over from all sides.