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Edition 4 Volume 10 - January 26, 2012

Can the Syrian regime survive?

The regime's prospects are better than two months ago but remain dim  - Karim Emile Bitar
The Syrian revolution is now entering a new, more ominous phase.

Syria's Assad regime is doomed, but the battle will be long and bloody  - Joshua Landis
The Assads stand atop the last minoritarian regime in the Levant.

A sinking ship  - Michel Nehme
The process might be relatively long and bloody, but if it persists it will ultimately devastate the regime.

Yes and no  - Elias Samo
Yes, Assad will survive, and no, the political structure of one-party Baath rule will not.

The regime's prospects are better than two months ago but remain dim
 Karim Emile Bitar

The Syrian revolution is now entering a new, more ominous phase. The regime has been considerably weakened and isolated. The Arab League's mission has ended in a fiasco. The economy is in tatters. The opposition's protests continue unabated. But the main pillars of President Bashar Assad's support are still holding on.

The military and the security apparatus remain loyal to the regime, mostly for sectarian considerations. Assad can still count on significant popular support particularly among religious minorities, whose fears and existential angst have yet to be alleviated. There have been relatively few defections. Syria's two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have not joined the revolution, partly because of the close surveillance exerted by the thuggish "shabiha" militias--but also because of the vested interests of the Sunni business elites who have too much to lose and have not fully accepted the opposition's rationale.

Because the pillars bolstering his regime have not yet succumbed (and for a host of other reasons), Assad's prospects are better than they were two months ago. The Salafists' strong showing in the Egyptian elections was seen as vindication for the pro-Assad fallacious argument that the only alternative to authoritarianism is fundamentalism and religious kookery. The French-Turkish quarrel after France criminalized any denial of the Armenian genocide was welcomed by Syria. The US withdrawal from Iraq and the specter of a wide Sunni-Shiite "fitna" provides fodder for the regime's propaganda.

Also, the anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow increased Russia's fear of revolutionary contagion and act as an incentive for Putin to keep supporting Assad. That Libya risks moving towards a civil war, and that the post-Gaddafi authorities are still unable to collect weapons only highlights the risks of foreign interventions and of the militarization of a revolution. Facing threats and tougher sanctions, Iran is even more unlikely to distance itself from its only Arab ally. Finally, the Syrian opposition is still unable to overcome its divisions and offer a reassuring and coherent action plan.

All these factors reinforce Bashar Assad's delusions that he can cling to power if he only digs in his heels and waits for the storm to pass. Albeit with lesser talent, he's taking cues from his father's dictator's manual and is once again trying to gain time. He knows that 2012 is an election year in France, in the United States and in Russia and that a western military intervention is not on the agenda. He knows that an Iraq under increasing Iranian influence will soon take over Qatar's place at the head of the Arab League. Assad is still convinced that his regime can show resilience, at least in the absence of a US-Russian or US-Iranian grand bargain that would lead his two foreign patrons to pull the plug on him.

But will the old Baathist tradition of playing for time still work? There are reasons to question this. In the minds of vast segments of the Syrian population, the regime has already fallen and has lost all legitimacy. As US President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address, the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed. The proverbial wall of fear has been irreparably damaged. Many governmental institutions are crumbling. Erstwhile allies are leaving the ship and the mercurial Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is now backing the Syrian opposition. Several foreign heads of state, including those who previously supported Assad, have definitely lost patience and are determined to bring him down.

Most importantly, the economic situation is probably untenable. European Union sanctions preventing Syria from selling its oil are costing the country $450 million per month. Tax revenues are down 50 percent. The budget deficit has almost reached 20 percent of gross domestic product. The Syrian pound is under severe pressure. Foreign exchange reserves are rapidly depleting and are now estimated by many experts at less than $12 billion.

We have reached a situation where the regime is weakened and unable to quell the demonstrations--while at the same time the opposition is disorganized and unable to topple the regime. This tug-of-war led to calls for the militarization of the revolution and for foreign interventions.

A civil war would be catastrophic for Syria and would very likely destabilize Lebanon and possibly Iraq. A militarization of the revolution would empower the most radical elements, as it did in Libya, and render future democratization much more difficult. A foreign intervention would open Pandora's box.

Those who would like Assad to fall are now confronted with the old Machiavelli vs. Kant philosophical dilemma: does the end justify the means or do the means determine the end? A comprehensive study, published by Columbia University Press and analyzing dozens of past cases, suggests that the latter is true. It indicates that if a dictator is overthrown through peaceful struggle, there is a 51 percent chance of a successful democratic transition after five years. In case of an armed struggle, the chances are only three percent.

The Syrian opposition is understandably impatient to bring Assad down and breathe freely. It should nonetheless meditate on these figures.-Published 26/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Karim Emile Bitar is a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris and the editor of "L'ENA hors les murs" monthly magazine. He also published "Regards sur la France" (Seuil).

Syria's Assad regime is doomed, but the battle will be long and bloody
 Joshua Landis

The Syrian regime headed by Bashar Assad is doomed in the long run, but is likely to last longer than most believe. In December, the leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood stated that President Assad would fall "in the next few months", the US State Department proclaimed Assad to be a "dead man walking", and Israel's defense minister insisted that Assad would fall in a matter of weeks. This has turned out to be wishful thinking.

The Assads stand atop the last minoritarian regime in the Levant and thus seem destined to fall in this age of popular revolt. When they do, the post-colonial era will draw to a final close. Following World War II, minorities took control in every Levant state thanks to colonial divide-and-rule tactics and the fragmented national community that bedeviled the states of the region. Unique in this was Palestine, for the Jewish minority was able to transform itself into the majority at the expense of Palestine's Muslims and Christians. Neither the Christians of Lebanon nor the Sunnis of Iraq were so lucky or ambitious. Nevertheless, both clung to power at the price of dragging their countries into lengthy civil wars. The Alawis of Syria seem determined to repeat this violent plunge to the bottom. It is hard to determine whether this is due to the rapaciousness of a corrupt elite, to the bleak prospects that the Alawi community faces in a post-Assad Syria, or to the weak faith that many in the region place in democracy and power-sharing formulas. Whatever the reason, Syria's transition away from minority rule is likely to be lengthy and violent. Levantine history suggests this is a rule.

There are three main reasons why the Assad regime is likely to last well into 2013--if not longer--despite Syria's rapidly deteriorating economic and security conditions.

The first is the strength of the regime compared to the opposition. The military has not turned against Syria's president. It is a professional army, which so far has a monopoly on heavy weapons in Syria. Important government officials have not defected in significant numbers. This loyalty is due in no small part to the fact that the Assad family has prepared for this moment of popular, Sunni revolt for 40 years. It has packed sensitive posts with loyal Alawis and Baathists. Some analysts estimate that 80 percent of Syria's officer corps is Alawi. The main strike-forces, such as the Republican Guard led by Bashar's brother, is Alawi to the man. An ambassador in Syria's Foreign Ministry recently claimed that 60 percent of Syria's Foreign Service officers are Alawi and only 10 percent Sunni. The sectarian nature of the elite elements of the security forces ensures a high degree of loyalty and willingness to fight. The broader Alawi community is also likely to remain loyal to the regime, even as the economy deteriorates. Almost all Alawi families have a least one member in the security forces as well as additional members working in civilian ministries, such as education or agriculture. Most fear collective punishment for the sins of the Baathist era, whether this means trials, the loss of jobs, or even worse (one irresponsible Sunni sheikh threatened that the Alawis will be ground into mince meat when defeated).

The second reason the Assad regime is likely to survive into 2013 is the disorganization and factionalism of the opposition. Through much of 2011, the Syrian opposition hoped that by remaining leaderless, as had revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia, the regime could be brought down largely by peaceful means: either because Bashar Assad would surrender power, a coup would dislodge him, sanctions would cause elite defections and collapse, or growing demonstrations would achieve a Tahrir square moment. By the end of 2012, these scenarios seemed ever more unlikely, and the opposition has been forced to think seriously about developing a trusted leadership, unifying its ranks, and coming up with a realistic military option to defeat the Syrian army. These objectives still seem far off.

The Syrian National Council, Syria's leading opposition coalition, remains highly factionalized and has found it difficult to unite with other opposition parties. The mere fact that the SNC membership has felt compelled to limit its leaders to a three-month term testifies to the high level of internal dissent. Burhan Ghalioun, the capable and savvy secular leader, is distrusted by many Islamists in the SNC as well as younger activists who are leading the struggle on Syria's streets. Only recently was he denounced by members of his own party for being a traitor and dictatorial when he prematurely announce a unification plan with the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a coalition of leftist parties led by Haytham Manaa.

Just as important as the opposition's political weaknesses, however, are its military limitations. The Free Syrian Army being assembled in Turkey under the leadership of Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad is no match for the Syrian army. Although armed opponents of the regime are an important development, their size, structural limitations, lack of heavy weapons, and limited command and control mean they do not yet present a real danger or alternative to the Syrian military. In fact, many analysts insist that most fighting is being done by small units organized on the local level that do not take orders from Col. Asaad or other leaders, even if they call themselves members of the Free Syrian Army. What is more, many Syrians still do not accept the notion that the regime should be brought down by military means.

The third reason that the Assad regime is unlikely to be deposed soon is that foreign powers are not eager to intervene militarily in Syria. US President Barack Obama and European authorities would find it difficult not to support military strikes on the Syrian army if they were led by Turkey or the Arab League, but neither has shown an inclination to undertake such a risky adventure.

So long as the Syrian military leadership remains united, the opposition remains fragmented, and foreign powers remain on the sidelines, the Assad regime is likely to survive, but all three of these elements are changing, even if gradually, in the favor of the opposition. The predominant role of minorities in the governments of the region, which was universal at the end of the colonial period, is being brought to a violent conclusion.-Published 25/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Joshua Landis is associate professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

A sinking ship
 Michel Nehme

Domestically, the mutiny in the Syrian army is slowly accelerating. It is beginning to pose a tangible threat to the military establishment, despite tight control by Baathist officers. The economy is gradually deteriorating--an indication of a long process that ultimately will topple the regime. The issue now is not whether the regime has been able to withstand or escape the storm, but rather the sense that the regime is slowly and daily getting weaker. Yet when it will finally collapse is not something that can be predicted, due to a variety of regional and international considerations.

Regionally, Syria is part of the first stage of a war on Iran. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah reportedly said last summer that "nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria." Iran, accordingly, is pressing President Bashar Assad to do whatever it takes to stay in power and preserve one of Tehran's most important relationships in the Middle East. Iran's leaders are trying to fine-tune Assad's political and economic conduct and are now urging him to consider talks with protesters or risk heading down a path with few escape routes.

Assad, aware of Iran's desperate need to bolster him, appears to be following his own rules in trying to brutally crush a mass revolt that has now begun to spread into the security forces. Thus he is compounding Iran's concerns about the effect on its own internal opposition, which has been mostly dormant since the Arab revolts began in Tunisia. Iranian officials are well aware that they cannot afford the international fallout that would be engendered by sending large-scale military forces to aid Assad. Still, it is likely that Iran has provided military and financial assistance to Damascus.

Turkey is well aware of the new regional reality and has been keenly watching events unfold in Syria, lest its neighbor's violence spill over the border. With a bloody status quo in the Syrian crisis having held for months, Turkey has moved from close friend of Damascus to harsh critic. It is aware that any intervention in Syria would be different from the one in Libya, since Russia and China have made it clear that there will be no more United Nations Security Council no-fly zone resolutions. This significantly amplifies the role of regional players like Turkey. Ankara may have declared it does not welcome a military solution to the Syrian crisis, but it has not ruled one out either, playing a wait-and-see game. If there is massive migration from its troubled neighbor, Turkey says it will have to protect its own people.

Saudi Arabia is cautious. It recognizes that the special ties between Tehran, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Damascus complicate the situation. They render military intervention in Syria and even international sanctions against Iran's nuclear program more problematic, lest they spark a wider conflict that might be much more difficult to contain.

Thus Riyadh recognizes that Arab calls for sending troops to Syria to protect civilians sound more like a moral obligation than a practical one; Syria will never allow it to happen. This has prompted the Arab League to take the case to the Security Council, which will also find itself in a bind because of Russia's support for Syria. The Security Council's dilemma may in turn force the UN General Assembly, where there is no veto, to adopt a peace resolution to intervene militarily based on a majority vote.

Yet who would be prepared at this time to take military action against the Syrian regime? The simplest military steps that could be invoked are to impose a no-fly zone, create a military buffer zone or secure safe passage for civilians. Any of these steps would require a large military force. Certainly Washington does not have the political will in view of the upcoming presidential elections. Accordingly, the Syrian regime can bide its time and continue to crush the opposition while the international community is still discussing sanctions.

One alternative for the United States and its allies, particularly Britain and France, is to fund and help structure the opposition. Yet there exists no proficient opposition movement: it remains a diverse group, representing the country's ideological, sectarian and generational divides.

Finally, Russia's pretentious support for Syria's beleaguered government cannot be explained solely by an earnest desire to help its long-time partner and biggest importer of its conventional weapons in the Middle East. Russia's stance also reflects a politically-inspired eagerness to confront the West, as well as the Kremlin's fears of Russia's own fast-growing internal opposition movement in the wake of last December's parliamentary vote, which was blemished by accusations of fraud and ballot-stuffing.

How long before the Syrian regime falls? Predictions are always wobbly, especially in a fast-moving situation. Still, one can say with some confidence that even if the Syrian regime were to make a serious and honest effort to meet the demands of the opposition, this would come too late to ensure its survival. In any regional and international reckoning, it is doomed to face continued rebellion. The new factor is that the opposition has broken the barrier of fear of the brutal regime, even as the killing of protesters destroys the regime's legitimacy. While this process might be relatively long and bloody, if it persists it will ultimately devastate the regime.-Published 26/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Professor Michel Nehme is director of University International Affairs, Notre Dame University, Lebanon.

Yes and no
 Elias Samo

Can the Syrian regime survive? That is a question only a crystal ball can definitively answer. My analysis of the two primary components of the Syrian regime--a pyramidal political leadership under President Bashar Assad and a one-party political structure under the Baath party--leads me to believe the answer is "yes and no". Yes, Assad will survive, and no, the political structure of one-party Baath rule will not.

The present turmoil in Syria is part of an inaptly named, pan-regional "Arab spring"; a more appropriate label would be "Islamic spring and Arab autumn". Labels aside, this divisive "spring" has caused a schism within Syrian society that, at the risk of oversimplification, divides it into three factions: the regime, the opposition and the silent majority.

First, the regime: a one-party system rife with corruption, nepotism and other characteristics of traditional one-party rule, the regime is now undergoing radical structural change. Certain hard-line forces within it are resistant to reform, preferring a cosmetic alteration of the status quo. However, in confronting the "spring's" irresistible forces--an international onslaught on Syria, an active opposition, an armed militia of army defectors, and unrelenting street protestors--the hardliners have been marginalized and their influence on decision-making reduced.

Assad made this clear in his last speech, asserting his decision to dismantle the one-party political structure of the regime. The president, after a decade-long wait, finally spoke of the end of one-party rule and the rise of a multi-party pluralistic system with democratic institutions. What reinforces this earnest declaration is the news from the Constitutional Committee, tasked several weeks ago by Assad to draft a new constitution. The committee's nearly-completed draft of the new constitution is understood to have removed controversial Article 8 of the existing constitution, which granted indefinite, absolute and exclusive ruling power to the Baath party, and replaced it with a multi-party pluralistic system with limited presidential terms of office and other components of democratic institutions.

Second, the opposition: criminal elements notwithstanding (there are indeed criminals in Syria taking advantage of the present turmoil and they are not exclusive to either side), the opposition is both diverse and disunited. It includes domestic, expatriate, sectarian, Islamist, national, ethnic and secular elements. It is united in opposing and not trusting the regime, which has been promising reforms since Bashar Assad's accession to power in 2000. But beyond this, the opposition is plagued by disagreement and dissent.

The opposition can be divided into two broad groups. One is pragmatic; it recognizes the complexity if not the impossibility of toppling the regime and is wary of the violence and destruction associated with the potential break-up of the state. Thus, it has opted to settle for fundamental but peaceful change. The second is maximalist, the counterpart of the regime's hardliners. It calls for the categorical and unequivocal collapse of the regime, an objective that could potentially lead to civil war and the break-up not only of the regime but of the state as well.

If Assad is successful in fulfilling both his commitment to the demise of the present political system and his determination to contain widespread violence, insecurity and economic hardship in many Syrian cities and towns, the uncompromising opposition will weaken and its support among the silent majority will be reduced. While it will probably not achieve its objective of toppling the regime, it at least will claim some of the credit for the demise of the one-party system.

Third, there is the silent majority: a diverse, mosaic-like population composed of different religions, sects and ethnicities. The silent majority tends to be peaceful, pragmatic, moderate and business-like. Like any good merchant in the ancient souks of Damascus and Aleppo, it will settle for a peaceful deal.

However, it is facing a conundrum. For decades it lived under one-party rule, enjoying state and personal security at the expense of civil liberty. Now, in light of the internal turmoil sweeping pockets of the country, the silent majority finds itself with neither liberty nor security. Grave security deterioration, while the existing political system still controls the use of force, has caused the silent majority to ponder the potential consequences of the collapse of the regime as pursued by the radical opposition. Such an unnerving scenario, coupled with Assad's earnest moves to remake the political system, will probably lead the silent majority to solve its dilemma by opting to take the side of the president.

All in all, though, anything said about what the future holds for Syria is mere speculation. The situation reminds one of the power struggles in the Kremlin following Stalin's death during the mid-1950s of the last century. A journalist in London asked Winston Churchill if he could shed some light on what was happening in the Kremlin, to which Churchill responded wittily, "My son, imagine you and I are standing outside a room looking inside through a window. The room is dark and 12 black cats are fighting for supremacy. And you ask me which black cat is winning?"-Published 26/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Elias Samo is professor of international relations at American and Syrian universities.

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