The apparently imminent eclipse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has re-ignited hope among some Western commentators concerning the so-called Arab Spring. The entry of Libyan rebels to Tripoli is being depicted in some circles as the removal of a major obstacle to the onward march toward freedom alleged to be taking place this year throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Some of the more enthusiastic observers are now turning their hopeful gaze toward Syria. They hope that with liberty victorious in Libya, the Assad regime will be the next to fall.
These hopes are mistaken on two levels.
First, it is mistaken to maintain that a great battle for liberty is currently under way in the Arabic-speaking world. Sober analysts of the region have long noted that the key stand-off in the main countries of the Arab world is between sclerotic and dictatorial regimes, and popular Islamist movements seeking to overthrow them.
Nothing has yet happened in the Arab Spring to radically alter this picture. Rather, what has changed is the relative strength of these rival forces. Until this year, the regimes had largely managed to contain the Islamist forces. Today in Egypt, this is no longer the case. In Libya, too, the balance looks about to be upended.
Second, the Assad regime in Syria still stands a fair chance of surviving the current revolt against its rule. The eclipse of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi will not cause Bashar Assad to alter his assessment of his own chances of survival. This is because he is aware of the very different arrangement of forces regarding Syria, both within the country itself and internationally.
The Assad regime is undoubtedly beleaguered. Its claim to any legitimacy was always paper-thin. Its information outlets blared out endless propaganda against Israel, the West and, famously, the “half-men” of the Westernaligned Arab countries. In practice, it rested on the narrowest of bases: the support of Syrian Alawites, and the acquiescence, with greater or lesser degrees of consent or fear, of all other sections of the population.
The events of the last few months have torn through this thin veneer. The Assad regime now rules over the large majority of the Syrian population by open coercion.
International anger at the regime is coalescing. US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton all issued statements last week saying that Assad should step down.
Even the United Nations Human Rights Council turned against Assad this week. The council, which for years maintained a polite silence (or concentrated on condemning Israel) as the regime jailed and disappeared its opponents, now suspects Assad of possible crimes against humanity. A team of redoubtable inspectors are to be sent to Syria to look for evidence of this.
The sanctions are intensifying. The US has already imposed a ban on Syrian oil imports. EU countries are currently drawing up plans for a similar embargo. The oil sector accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of Syrian state revenue, so sanctions would be significant.
A draft UN resolution drawn up by the US and the EU will call for sanctions against Assad himself, 22 officials and the country’s General Intelligence Directorate.
Yet with all this, the regime shows no signs of yielding, and apparently remains confident that it can continue its rule. Why? Is Assad now simply delusional, like an earlier dictator who spent his last days in his bunker marshalling phantom divisions that existed only on paper?
He is not. Ramadan, the month that was supposed to witness the mass protests that would take the revolt against Assad to new heights, is almost finished. But Assad is still there. His security forces and Alawite irregulars are still moving from town to town, energetically butchering their fellow countrymen.
At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, it was clear that for as long as Assad maintained the following elements, he stood a good chance of survival: unity of the regime elite, unity of the security forces, the geographically limited nature of the uprising, the support of allies, a weak international response, and a divided opposition.
Of these, items one to three are largely intact. There are no indications yet of cracks in the regime elite’s stance of unity. Evidence of strains in the security forces is patchy and appears partial at best. The Alawite elite around Assad appear convinced that their choice remains to survive with the dictator or go down with him.
The vital, practical support of Iran is also there. Tehran considers Assad’s survival a key strategic goal. Russia and China voted against the condemnation of Assad in the UN Human Rights Council.
The dimensions of the uprising have spread. But the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo remain largely untouched by it. The absence of ferment in the commercial center of Aleppo is vital for the regime.
The differing international response remains the central factor keeping Assad from a Gaddafi-like fate. If NATO air power were to be deployed against him, it would be a game-changer. This looks highly unlikely.
And finally, despite efforts at unity, the opposition remains divided. Attempts in Turkey to create a single “National Council” for the opposition appear to have foundered. The Syrian Kurds are staying away, incensed by what they perceive as the Arab nationalist tones of other elements. The strong representation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the unity discussions in Istanbul should also be noted.
None of this guarantees the survival of the Assad family dictatorship. But the prospect is for a long, drawn-out struggle ahead, rather than a rapid resolution of the matter. In this struggle, the key opposing forces are the Iransupported regime, and a divided opposition in which the most determined elements are Sunni Islamist and local tribal forces. Those still hoping that this situation will deliver democracy to Syria by immaculate conception are likely to be disappointed.