Unfriending Assad: Turkey, Iran and Even Hizballah Begin to Rethink Syria

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Murad Sezer / Reuters

A Syrian opposition demonstrator living in Turkey kicks a poster of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a protest in central Istanbul August 28, 2011.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad seems to have a knack for making enemies and losing friends. Although the lanky leader's dynastic dictatorship has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the West since he assumed power upon the death of his father in 2000, he could always count on the support of those other Western pariahs — Iran and the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hizballah — as well as the wheeling-and-dealing Turks. In fact, his stormy ties with the West were a point of pride, proof of his anti-Israeli and anti-American credentials, cementing his position in a "resistance axis" stretching from Tehran through Lebanon's Hizballah and Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Still, Assad's ability to outlast calls for his ouster by his many foes is one thing; antagonizing his friends is another. Assad, it seems, has forgotten the age-old Arabic saying: "If your sweetheart is made of honey, don't lick it all away." The Syrian president has done just that; exhausting the patience and ignoring the advice of his allies by pushing ahead with his vicious campaign of violence against largely peaceful pro-democracy protesters. More than 2,000 people have killed in six months of anti-regime demonstrations which show no sign of abating. The violence seems to have emboldened protesters, rather than cowed them, and pushed the tolerance of Syria's allies.

Ankara appears to have neared breaking point with Damascus. Turkish President Abdullah Gul didn't mince his words on Sunday, saying that he had "lost confidence" in the Syrian regime, but stopped short of asking Assad to leave. Still, his view was clear. "Today in the world there is no place for authoritarian administrations, one-party rule, closed regimes," he told Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency. "These will either be changed by force or by the initiative of those who rule."

The toothless Arab League has called for restraint and will send its new chief, Nabil al-Araby, to Damascus to seek an end to the bloodshed. But the most significant rebuke has come from Iran, Syria's staunchest ally. Iran's foreign minister has called on Damascus to recognize the "legitimate" demands of its people, an ironic statement given Tehran's own crackdown against its indigenous pro-democracy, or "green" movement in 2009 following disputed elections. It is, nevertheless, still harsh criticism. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for dialogue with protesters in Damascus, contradicting the Syrian state's narrative that the security forces are facing "armed gangs" and "terrorists," but maintaining that there are "foreign elements" fomenting the unrest. "The government should answer to the demands of its people, be it Syria, Yemen or other countries,'' Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted by Iran's ISNA news agency as saying. ''The people of these nations have legitimate demands, and the governments should answer these demands as soon as possible."

Hizballah had echoed its sponsors in Iran, claiming that Syria is the victim of a "foreign conspiracy," a "Zionist plot" to weaken it for its anti-Israeli stance. But the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, also mimicked Tehran's most recent advice to Assad: "Everyone who is a friend of Syria and seeks to preserve the country and its unity should combine efforts to help push them toward dialogue and peaceful resolution," he said last week.

Tehran can't afford to lose Assad, its Arab lynchpin, but can Assad afford to lose Iran? Sunni Saudi Arabia has long sought to pry Damascus from Tehran's orbit to weaken what Jordan's King Abdullah has termed a creeping "Shi'ite crescent" across the majority Sunni Middle East. It's an ancient schism in Islam, that has precipitated a low-level cold war for influence in the region between the Shi'ite Iranian state, and the Sunni monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia.

Some Syrians fear that a deal may be brokered by Riyadh to keep a weakened, chastized Assad in power on the condition that he break with Tehran and Hizballah. There are many unanswered questions: Can Assad do it? Will he do it? But why should he do it, especially given that he clearly believes he is winning and will emerge on the other side of this bloodletting on his terms? In his most recent television appearance on Aug. 21, a relaxed Syrian president said that the "security situation is better now" and that he was "not worried" because "we are capable of dealing with it."

The protesters, however, seem in no mood to entertain the idea of keeping Assad in power, in any way, shape or form. In countless interviews with protesters, and activists over weeks and months, one view has been constant: that Assad has spilt too much blood, killed too many people and shown no remorse. "His regime has already fallen," said one man in the Syrian city of Hama, "because his words mean nothing to us anymore." Indeed, the increasing calls for his execution heard at protests these days seem to underline a prevalent view among activists at least that Assad has no place in Syrian politics anymore.

Hizballah, too, has lost the respect of many Syrians. Its canary yellow flag, emblazoned with a bright green Kalashnikov, has been burnt during several demonstrations across the country. Many protesters have taken to calling it "the party of the Devil" rather than "the party of God," its English translation. Nasrallah, a charismatic, humble and strategic thinker, has helped oversee his party's evolution from a ragtag militia to Lebanon's most powerful political group, complete with its own armed wing as well as a sizable presence in parliament. Has Nasrallah made the wrong bet? His party's vaunted stature in the region has taken a tumble; it has long been the party of the oppressed, the party of the underdog, the party that strongly supported the Egyptian and Bahraini revolutionaries. But that has now suffered as Hizballah continues to back Assad.

Will the wily Nasrallah continue to stick with the regime, which has been an invaluable conduit for weapons and money from Iran to Lebanon, even as Assad falls deeper into international and regional isolation? Does Hizballah really need him, given that it holds so much sway in Lebanon, including its main transit points by air and sea as well as its porous land border with Syria? Will Hizballah break from Assad or will he break from it? The thing about friendships is that, sometimes, other interests get in the way.