Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Balancing Act: Revolt in Syria and Assad's Choices

A few months ago when the pro-democracy revolutions of the Arab Spring toppled the long established autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt, I turned my attention to the wave of protests that were occurring in Libya and the tough response required by the West, which should have been led primarily by the European Union.  Although the EU does not speak with the single voice I thought necessary for a coherent solution to the ongoing Libya crisis and although the response has basically turned into a United Nations backed coalition of only certain NATO members driving the campaign without clearly defined objectives, the actions in this mission are mainly spearheaded by France and the United Kingdom, with additional support from the United States; a lighter, but less effective version of my initial recommendation.  I also discussed the options that President Mubarak had during the onset of the revolutions in Egypt; to either move with the transition towards democracy or to oppose it.  In the end and after sustained tenacity he finally capitulated to the domestic and international pressure.  For him however it was already too late and the irreparable damage to his reputation had been sealed. 
Colonel Gaddafi in Libya on the other hand, reacted to his country’s uprisings with a predictable level of extreme violence and brute force.  Based on his long and disturbing history of personal instability and horrific repression, there was never really an alternative response to be expected from him as there might have been for Ben Ali in Tunisia or even Mubarak in Egypt.  Now, as events continue to unfold in Bahrain, Yemen, and increasingly worryingly in Syria, it is important to consider what President Assad’s options are and what the outcome of these might be.  Even though the world is currently distracted by the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I would argue that the most urgent and pressing issue in the greater region is not to be found there, or even in Libya, but rather in Syria and the potential for either sustained violence or a collapse of the Assad regime and wider contagion in the region. 
When I visited Syria in December I was hopeful at what I saw at the time as a country attempting to slowly open up after decades of closed doors, policy efforts aimed at building a vibrant tourism industry and welcoming of foreigners overall.  While entirely realistic about the true nature of the Baathist regime in power and my constant awareness of surveillance, censorship, and the suppression on individual liberties and freedoms, I interpreted the leadership of Bashar al-Assad as more pragmatic and forward looking than that of his father Hafez who had ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 2000.  Reluctant, disinterested in politics and an ophthalmologist by training, President Assad succeeded his father almost by accident when his brash older brother, Basil al-Assad, was killed unexpectedly in a car accident.  The whole story almost had a “Godfather” feel to it with President Assad playing the role of a Michael Corleone.  People who I had travelled with in Lebanon had an opportunity to have an audience with President Assad as part of a delegation of academics and their feedback was similar; that he was receptive to criticism, allowed open dialogue, and expressed a desire to implement reforms over time.  Furthermore, as the country is officially secular, I personally observed how Syria’s minorities were protected by law and noticed that the country did not appear to face the same sectarian and religious strife as do many of its neighbors.  To a visitor, Syria might have seemed like a country on the verge of change.    
Now, just four months later, and to the shock of the international community, President Assad has demonstrated his more forceful and brutalizing side, crushing demonstrations throughout the country and massacring unarmed civilians by the scores.  As I write this post, the “days of defiance” carry on and tanks continue to move through cities across the country to deter, suppress, and ultimately kill any sign of rebellion.  His lifting of the state of emergency and the forming of a new government has meant very little in relation to real change and it is clear that Assad’s Baathist security forces direct policy in the country, holding together the “calm and serenity” I interpreted through terror.  For Syria and for President Assad in particular, trying to reconcile these actions going forward is going to be difficult.  He has set his country’s development back decades and the future that I thought imminently possible just a few months ago is no more as he sinks Syria deeper into bloodshed and chaos.  If the demonstrations keep their pace and are met with the same bloody crackdowns by the government, the situation risks further destabilization, largely because the international community might feel it must do something in light of its verbal chastisements towards Egypt and its military actions towards Libya.
Syria has always been an immensely important player in the region and it is important for the US not to lose sight of this in light of the distractions emanating from the death of Bin Laden, Pakistan’s probable culpability in his protection and the ongoing humanitarian and military crises in Libya.  Long, complicated and incredibly influential, Syria remains one of the only countries in the region that truly matters when it comes to the long term stability of neighboring Lebanon and the progression of the Israel/Palestine peace process.  From the meddling of the internal affairs of Lebanon, accusations of connivance in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the staunch support of Hezbollah and Hamas, and lastly, its strategic relationship with Iran as the foremost enemy of Israel, I would argue that next to Egypt, Syria is the most important country to witness the Arab Spring so far.  Up to this point the international community has had its hands full and has decided to focus its efforts on Libya, which besides the oil and commercial contracts, does not carry the same geopolitical strategic weight as Syria.  I would argue that the situation on the ground there is much more sensitive than in Libya and how the international community decides to handle it depends largely on what moves President Assad makes next.  Unlike Colonel Gaddafi, President Assad is not an unpredictable mad man, but rather a highly calculated and rational politician, so the interactions with Syria will likely be a balancing act of rhetoric, soft power, and, if necessary, economic warfare.                    
I only see three options for President Assad at this point; crush the movement at all economic and human costs, including the risk of alienation by the international community and the imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions; resign amid growing internal pressure from within his own Baath Party leaving the country to potential sectarian violence, power vacuums and struggles within the party and with external factions; or maintain a temporary tight grip on power, ease on the violent crackdowns, and institute immediate political and economic reforms with a clearly defined timeframe for transition to a new caretaker government to oversee a period of constitutional overhauls and eventual elections.  Obviously there are a million shades of gray between each of these courses of action and the variables are complex and numerous with varying versions more realistic than others.  In order to resign, there would have to be significantly more domestic pressure exerted on him than there is currently, either internally from his own party, or through greater popular revolt in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two biggest cities which have remained mostly quiet during the onset of these demonstrations, suggesting that Assad manages to secure political control on these important cities.   

Unlike in Egypt where revolt occurred in the capital’s most high profile and visible public square, Syria’s demonstrations are taking place in secondary and tertiary cities, for now.  Unless there is a significant shift in this trend and activity increases in the capital and the second city, his resignation appears unlikely.  Furthermore, he is fully aware that his absence from power would create a vacuum, similar to the one left when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq.  As to whether he will transition the government to democratic reforms is also highly improbable.  His lifting of the state of emergency and the institution of a new cabinet has affected very little in terms of real policy or practice and there are signs that his powerful security apparatus might be the most influential player in government, much like the ISI is appearing to be in Pakistan.  My prediction is that Assad will make the short term sacrifice to his reputation and to his country in order stay in power and take the first course of action only to pick up the pieces later.    
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stressed that “there will be consequences for these actions”, but a US-led military intervention in Syria would likely only replicate the same destabilizing effects as the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The two regimes, Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Syria under President Assad, are both Baathist, and aside from the geographic proximity of being right next door to one another, both countries share similar demographics and underlying sectarian issues.  The US knows that a war in Syria or even a “military campaign” similar to the one in Libya is the last thing they need right now while still entangled in Afghanistan, Iraq, and with tensions rising with Pakistan.  The international community might be realizing, however awkwardly, that it will have to openly contradict itself time and again in how it approaches each situation on an individual basis.  If nothing else, the events this year in North Africa, the Middle East, and now in Pakistan have proven that there has never been a one size fits all solution in dealing with despots, revolt, extremism, and terror.  The lackluster response by the United States to Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement shares nothing in common with its hard line reaction to Libya.  The US only pushed back on Mubarak at the last minute when his ousting looked imminent.   
While it has always been the case, Western leaders can no longer portray to the public that their policy responses on these varying crises are consistently based on democratic ideals, but instead have more to do with longer term grand strategy.  President Assad will get away with his violent crackdowns only because the West cannot afford to destabilize Syria through more war and conflict and he knows it.  With no major commercial contracts or oil interests at stake in Syria, we can afford to leave a despot in power to kill his own people without the risk of losing vital economic interests to the whims of a dictator.  What we cannot risk is losing a potential long term strategic player in the region at the cost of a possible sectarian civil war that could span both Syria and Iraq, further engulfing the entire region.  Assad will accept travel bans and economic sanctions in the short term while his security apparatus focuses on regaining control over the country in the long term.  Although it will set his country back years diplomatically, it is a calculated risk that both Assad and the West realize must be balanced against long term strategic interests for all parties involved.  The alternatives here are far more unknown and dangerous than anywhere else so far, and neither Assad nor the international community can stomach those risks right now.        
Colonel Gaddafi has already explicitly set the precedent that a dictator can go as far as he wants on the spectrum of international pariah, killing foreign nationals overseas, brutalizing people at home, and still gain forgiveness and acceptance with Western powers so long as there is a strategic or economic argument in doing so.  Regardless of the West’s response to his behavior right now, Assad knows there is a good chance it isn’t over for his regime in the long term and that this bloody repression might just become another page in history once things settle down and global attention is again turned to Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Libya’s civil war, and potentially now, Pakistan. 
Increasingly, it appears that Assad was duplicitous all along, hoping to liberalize his image abroad in exchange for the economic benefits this would achieve at home while keeping the political status quo domestically.  From his perspective it was not a bad option; if Mubarak could get away with it for over thirty years with staunch support from the United States then why couldn’t he?  Leveraging its geopolitical importance in the region as collateral for dialogue with Europe and the United States could have put Syria on a similar playing field as Egypt; important not for oil, which neither country possesses, but rather for the diplomatic and political role they could play with Iran, Hezbollah and in the Israel/Palestine peace process.   

More than likely, Assad might have thought he could have it both ways, a new Mubarak or Ben Ali in the Levant; more open to the West abroad, but repressive at home.  Reforms might have continued, albeit slowly and with little effect.  His real task for democratization was and will still remain open dialogue with liberal and progressive opposition figures and a dismantling of the system of nepotism and corruption that the legacy of Assad family rule has left in Syria.  It would have also meant a complete dismantling of the powerful security apparatus that, to a large degree, influences the actions of the regime.  All of this seems like it might have been too much, too soon for Assad; much easier to keep things as they were and evolve into something else, not quite democracy, but not quite pariah.  Alas, the Arab Spring came too soon before he ever had his chance to blossom into another globally acceptable Arab dictator, but he will probably stick to his original plan of action; crush democracy, accept the short term consequences abroad, and maintain his power grip on the country and therefore his influence in the region.  In the meantime, dozens of innocent civilians will continue to be maimed and killed in Syria while the international community observes “with deep concern”, slowly realizing that the awkward complexities of the Middle East will not be going away anytime soon and that there are no easy answers to the problems the world faces, even with the death of Osama bin Laden.    
P.S. Shortly I will be launching a spin-off from this blog which will serve as a medium of discussion and commentary on the world's events.  Please watch this space for a forthcoming link.  


  1. Great post! This is a really interesting commentary, not least given that you were recently in Syria. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts when you launch the spin-off!

  2. Thank you! I really appreciate the readership and will hope to have more soon on the new spin-off!