Assad’s Assets

February 24, 2013 | By More

Bashar al-Assad is in deep trouble, but it does not yet look terminal. After the NATO
intervention in Libya—not to mention the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—no
external power, and surely no Western country, has an appetite for military intervention. Russia
has started to express its alarm at what its Syrian friends are doing, but it will almost certainly
block condemnation of Syria at the UN Security Council, as will China. And Syria is too central to
the stability of the eastern Arab world for any of the neighboring Arab states to be in a hurry to
destabilize it. While the Saudis and several other Gulf states have recalled their ambassadors,
and the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council have urged Assad to stop the killing, they
have not called for him to step down.

Compared with other Arab countries that have experienced this year’s revolutionary wave,
Syria is something of a special case. Tunisia, for example, is geographically largely immune from
the boisterous currents of Arab politics (although it has had to take in refugees from Libya).
Events in Libya, too, violent as they have been, have had little impact on the Arab world. Even
Egypt’s revolution has not so far radically changed the Arab political map. Egypt is still self-
absorbed, trying to sort out its own immense problems. It will no doubt in the future have a
major impact on the Arab world, and on Arab-Israeli relations, but not quite yet.

Syria, in contrast, lies at the heart of the politics of the eastern Arab world. It is on the fault
line of the Sunni-Shiite divide. It is Iran’s main Arab ally. It is Israel’s most obdurate opponent.
It was, until the present crisis, the linchpin of Turkey’s Arab policy. As Turkey’s relations with
Israel cooled, a Turkish-Syrian alliance was formed that has been of great importance for the
region’s geopolitics. Strains have arisen because of the brutality of Syria’s security forces, but
Turkey has by no means abandoned Syria. It would like to play a key role in stabilizing the
situation, and has urged Assad to discipline his forces and stop the killing.

Syria is still the dominant external influence in Lebanon, in alliance with Hezbollah, the
strongest party and the most powerful armed force in that country. Israel and the United States
continue to demonize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, whereas it is, in fact, no more than
a Shiite resistance movement, which managed to evict Israel from Southern Lebanon after
a twenty-two-year occupation (1978–2000). Indeed, it was Israel’s occupation that created
Hezbollah. To Israel’s fury, Hezbollah has acquired a minimal capability to deter further Israeli
aggression; it demonstrated its strength when Israel last invaded Lebanon, in 2006. Israel would
dearly like to disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, which in the past three decades has
been the main obstacle to its regional hegemony. But it would not be easy to do so without
incurring grave risks.

Hezbollah has attracted some criticism, especially from Syria’s opponents in Lebanon, for siding
with Assad’s repression. Its heroic image of confronting Israel has been somewhat dented.
But it remains true that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have together shouldered the confrontation
with Israel and the United States ever since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty removed Egypt
from the Arab equation and exposed the rest of the region to Israeli power. This was evident in
1982. In the same year that the Syrian army perpetrated the massacre at Hama, Israel invaded
Lebanon, killing more than 17,000 people in an attempt to destroy the PLO and wrest Lebanon
from Syria’s sphere of influence, bringing it into Israel’s orbit. Had Israel been successful, Syria’s

security would have been fatally undermined and Israel would have reigned supreme in the
Levant. However, the late Hafez al-Assad managed to thwart the Israeli plan. He used to claim it
was one of his greatest triumphs. It protected Syria and kept Lebanon in the Arab camp.

All these many relationships—with friends as well as enemies—would risk unraveling if the
Assad regime were to fall. This is the great worry in the region and beyond, and is one reason
Bashar al-Assad may yet survive.

If the protests in Syria become more threatening and the killing continues, no one should
expect the regime to go down without a fight. Indeed, few regimes are ready to commit
political suicide or willingly surrender to their enemies, especially when severe retribution is
threatened. Under father and son, the Assad regime has lasted for more than four decades,
survived many a crisis and seen off many an enemy. In this, its ruthlessness is no different from
that of others.

China had its Tiananmen Square massacre and Russia its bitter war in Chechnya. Iran crushed
the Green Movement, which tried to topple President Ahmadinejad. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton has cast aspersions on Assad’s legitimacy and called on the international community
to stop doing business with Syria, but Syrians know very well that America’s record in hunting
down and destroying its enemies is no better than their own, and perhaps a good deal worse.
When it was attacked on 9/11, that great bastion of democracy invaded Afghanistan in 2001,
then Iraq in 2003 on fraudulent, trumped-up charges. Hundreds of thousands died, and several
million were internally displaced or forced to flee abroad. Syria still plays host to more than 1
million Iraqi refugees, victims of America’s war.

As violence intensifies in Syria, the frightening specter looms of a bloody sectarian settling of
accounts. It is already a case of kill or be killed. That is why all those who care about the Syrian
people and about regional stability should work to ensure that a national dialogue take place
as soon as possible, with the aim of bringing about a transition of power by democratic means
rather than by civil war.

Category: Arab uprising

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