Syria's Assad Bashes Heads, Hoping His Regime's Strategic Importance Buys It a Pass

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Protesters march through the streets in Homs, Syria May 6, 2011 in a still image taken from video. The banner reads, "We are not seeking destruction and division, we are seeking freedom and peace."

Location, in real estate and sometimes in politics, is everything. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lives in a very different geopolitical neighborhood from his erstwhile, but now-ousted counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the teetering leaders of Libya and Yemen. It's a tumultuous patch of the Middle East, populated by an uneasy mix of religious and ethnic groups, frequently in turmoil. Fear of the chaos and instability his ouster might unleash is Assad's greatest advantage as he races to brutally crush a seven-week uprising before the rapidly rising body count forces world leaders to act more forcefully against him.

Despite widely shared misgivings about the consequences of regime-change in Syria, the international community is slowly hardening its stance toward the ruling Ba'athist regime. The U.S. has targeted new sanctions at three senior figures, including the president's brother Maher al-Assad, who heads the army's 4th Division and Republican Guard units tasked with subduing protests in the southern city of Dara'a, where the current uprising began in mid-March. The European Union has agreed to impose sanctions on 13 top Syrian officials, but remains divided as to whether or not Bashar al-Assad himself should be censured.

The ambivalence over targeting Assad himself could be a product of the "good cop" image the young president has cultivated during his 11 years in power. According to that narrative, Assad is good, humble and close to his people, but he is surrounded by bad apples, especially senior intelligence operatives and holdovers from the regime he inherited from his father, Hafez al-Assad. In this version of reality, Bashar has long wanted to implement reforms, but he has been hamstrung by the consequences of such developments as 9/11, the Iraq war and the 2006 Lebanon war. Even as he has sent tanks into towns and presided over the killing of close to 600 protesters and the arrest of as many as 8,000 others, the "good Bashar" story insists that world leaders could still cajole him into curbing the bloodbath. It's enough to make Libya's Moammar Gaddafi choke on his chai.

Even as the Syrian regime's measures against pro-democracy protesters are rapidly approaching the brutality unleashed by Gaddafi's forces when the protest movement broke out in Libya, nobody's expecting NATO to scramble its jets to protect Syrians, says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. Western leaders still harbor a hope that "traditional tools of diplomacy" will sway Assad, says Hamid. "I think there's a realization that where Gaddafi was delusional and not open to compromise, I think there still is a hope that pressure can work on Assad."

Still, some — including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Assad friend and ally — appear to be losing patience. The Turkish leader this week issued a scathing critique of Assad's actions, warning him against "another Hama," a reference to the Syrian city bombed to rubble in 1982 by Hafez al-Assad after an Islamist insurrection there. At least 10,000 people were killed in that uprising, although the exact figure is not known. Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, says the Turkish about-face came because "the Turks realized that the presence of this regime is a factor creating instability in the region, the opposite of what the West thinks."

Assad's immediate problem, however, is that brute force is not having the desired effect. On Friday, tens of thousands of protesters once again demonstrated across Syria following afternoon prayers, despite the regime having repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to open fire on them. As many as 21 people were killed in the city of Homs in central Syria, activists said, and more than a dozen injured in what has become a regular cycle of protests, deaths and further protests.

Both sides appear to have boxed themselves in.

Although Assad has talked of reforms and abolished the 48-year emergency law, his regime has continued to kill and arrest protesters. Even if he amends the Constitution to allow multi-party politics and makes other concessions, many Syrians will want him to pay for the blood he has spilt in recent weeks. Protesters are rapidly approaching the point where they believe that ceasing their actions offers them no greater hope of physical survival than does fighting on. "The more the regime has shot into crowds, the larger the protests have become. It's a lose-lose situation," Hamid says. "More repression, even if it works, will remove the regime's last shreds of legitimacy. Less repression may embolden the opposition and lead to regime change."

Which brings us back to geography: Syria is a linchpin state, one that may be too strategically important to fail because of the ethnic and sectarian strife the regime's collapse could spark in the tinderbox states next door. To Syria's east is strife-torn Iraq; to its west, weak and volatile Lebanon. In the north, Turkey's restive Kurdish areas abut Syria's long-marginalized and politically disenfranchised Kurds. In the southwest lurk Jordan's Islamists, while Israel, which has occupied Syria's Golan Heights since the 1967 war, remains a hostile state. Damascus is also at the center of the so-called anti-American, anti-Israeli "resistance axis" grouping Iran, the militant groups Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, with Syria.

The potential consequences of Syria's political unraveling are unclear, but potentially very dangerous. Decades of Ba'athist repression have precluded the emergence of an organized democratic opposition. Assad's opponents are a disparate group of aging intellectuals, exiled Islamists, and widely distrusted former regime figures like Abdel-Halim Khaddam, a long-serving vice president who also held several posts under Bashar's father.

Still, rights activists say fear of the unknown and geopolitical calculations are poor reasons to keep a tyrant in power. "If anything, Syria is a source of instability in Iraq, in Palestine, and Lebanon," Qurabi says. "A weakening of the regime in Syria or its change, or its reform so that it represents Syrian society, I think will result in positive change in the region." Sometimes, it requires a dramatic change to improve a difficult neighborhood.