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September 11, 2012, Tuesday

Syria: the game of exhaustion

“Have no doubts, Assad will go to the very end.”
When I met my colleague Ayman Abdel Nour a few days ago in İstanbul, his words were uttered as if there was a necessity to disperse any hope that the downfall of the Syrian regime would be possible to speed up.

We agreed even before we took up the conversation, so to speak. But Abdel Nour is not just an outside observer: His past as a close friend and advisor to Bashar al-Assad counts heavily. It has been four years since he quit the ship (long before the Arab Spring started), and he is one of the important figures of the Christian opposition to the Baathists, by running a blog ( His ability to cover Syria from within, by key sources in many crucial places (including the depths of Damascus) is impressive.

Here are some points from our conversation:

Assad is in complete control. It is not that he is somehow a hostage of the Baath cadres that have blood on their hands. He runs the entire operation. Despite the bombing that killed some members of his inner circle, his composure has not been shaken. He has a vast, global intelligence network, simply because there are many Syrians abroad who have access to it in many capitals.

Assad acts with the conviction that he is some sort of messiah sent with a special mission to save Syria. The sense, the delusion of grandeur, came to him in the early stages as he assumed power. Part of the blame is on the shoulders of some members of the Arab League; in a meeting, when he made a speech as a new leader, some elderly leaders approached him and told him that he was the only hope for the leadership of a powerful Middle East. This changed him. Pushing the promises for change aside, he stopped listening to advice. He told the government that the only policy with the West (the EU, etc.) would be based on “promise, promise but delay.” He utilized duplicity as the means for survival. Turkey was part of it; when it realized he had a demonic mind, it was already too late.

But, initially, he had to agree to an “opening” with Turkey because the powerful and loyal Sunni business circles of Syria demanded it. It worked well because the agreements with Ankara lacked the dimension of reform and human rights, as opposed to relations with the EU. Given that, Assad acted towards Turks as if he would deliver, pretended to listen to them, with full awareness of what he was not going to do.

Turkey’s current policy is, in broad terms, correct. But a big mistake remains concerning the dimension of humanitarian aid and refugees.

Ankara has acted selectively, and its choice to single out the Muslim Brotherhood as the only channel to distribute aid and non-combat logistics disappointed, alienated and miffed other parts of the opposition. It has remained a partisan approach, which needs to be corrected. Also, the miscalculation of the number of refugees -- because Ankara may have predicted the swift downfall of the regime -- led to a rejection of international cooperation.

The claims of an al-Qaeda presence in the civil war are not to be taken seriously. When Bashar’s father, Hafez, came to power, he fought the Sunni opposition not by direct confrontation but from within. Assad built his own version of terrorist groups and took some of their leaders from Syria’s Mukhabarat (intelligence agency). Note that many of the jailed so-called Salafi terrorists have now been released from jail. One can easily guess the reason.

The pro-Assad powers are playing an “exhaustion” game. It aims to wear out international opinion by continuous killings and massacres so that when it comes to the table, there is a single item on the agenda. If Assad can re-establish full control in Syria (which seems almost impossible) he will be using precious time, served by Russian moves, to entrench the regime along the coast. Syrian foreign office sources say that Assad acts with the knowledge that at the end of the day, the Nusayri/Alawite statelet will be recognized as the legitimate Syria (with Assad on top) by Russia. (The end of Assad’s reign may only then become an issue). Moscow would thereby be able to enhance its presence in a strategic location, just 80 kilometers from a NATO base in Cyprus. The issue of a divided Syria along sectarian lines was a top agenda item when President Vladimir Putin visited Israel. The US, NATO and the EU are dismayed by these moves, and the power struggle from now on will be between a united Syria without Assad or a divided Syria with him. The latter will serve to worsen the situation in the region, certainly.

If Abdel Nour’s assessments are correct, we may see the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN envoy for Syria, as devoid of meaning. He will only serve to play for time, for all players, including Turkey.

Until the real game starts, the world will have to wearily watch the continuous loss of human lives.

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