Unmoved by the chorus of condemnation and growing sanctions and despite warnings from the international community, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad seems to be holding on to power at the cost of more than a thousand lives.
As Assad remains silent, responsibility seems to have fallen on the world’s shoulders to deal with the many questions on how to transform the Syrian unrest into peaceful and democratic development, but as of now there are no easy solutions in sight.
Just like the rest of the world, Turkey is dithering over how to handle Assad, a former ally and a friend to the country, trying to position the leader somewhere between friend and brute. Turkey at the same time is refraining from inviting Western intervention, which has proven unable to provide remedies in the past. News of the killings are drawing world condemnation, but the death toll may prove to be just the tip of the iceberg as a large number of Syrians seem to be vanishing into thin air, with calculations by human rights groups pointing to 1,600 killings, 3,000 disappearances and close to 40,000 arrests and detentions.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s remarks may have been too optimistic when he said Assad’s recent Hama attack was sending the wrong signal, when he might actually be meaning to smash his opposition to ensure the survival of the Assad family’s more than 40 year rule.
Assad between a rock and a hard place
Assad has mostly remained silent, suffering the isolation of a leader who belongs to the minority but dominant Alawi sect in country of 23 million with a 75 percent Sunni population. Justified by a perceived threat of war with Israel, Syrians have lived under emergency law in a police state ruled by a power monopoly in the hands of the Assad family and suffered a long history of corruption, which Assad has not been able to curb since he rose to power in 2000. Assad’s methods of dealing with the uprising show that advice from Turkey and the international community is falling on deaf ears.
“Syria scrapped a policy Turkey had barely established in the region when it began heading down the road outlined by Iran in fear of losing its regime, but at the cost of limiting its room to move,” said Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, an associate professor of international relations at Ankara’s Gazi University. He explained that Syria opted for violence following in the footsteps of Iran and ignoring Turkey’s encouragement for peaceful dialogue. Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Erol also acknowledged that Syria favored Iran over Turkey for pragmatic reasons and that the two countries had common anxieties. “Iran’s concern over the fall of its resistance front against the US, and Israel scored with Syria’s concern for survival, which in return resulted in their partnership,” stated Erol.
Experts seem to agree that Syria has been very instrumental in extending Iran’s reach to Lebanon to pull strings with Hezbollah and to have Israel breathing down its neck. Who will replace Assad in the event of his fall is particularly significant for Iran as Syria is its single ally that has the power to save Iran from the confines of the Gulf. Syria and Iran have been brothers not so much in their ideology but in their isolation in a region that is not welcoming of Shiites, a fear also confirmed by a mutual defense treaty signed in 2004 when they pledged to protect each other if they were faced with the risk of sharing Iraq’s fate.
“It is not a sectarian but very much a strategic partnership between Syria and Iran,” explained Veysel Ayhan, an academic at İzzet Abant Baysal University and a Middle East expert at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) in a phone interview with Sunday’s Zaman. “Iran would do anything to keep Assad in power because without him, Iran’s gate to the Mediterranean would be blocked for good,” he said, stressing that the Syrian uprising is also a matter of life and death for Iran. “To enable a solution that suits his taste, Iran might be pushing Assad to make minor reforms with no real substance, to divide his opposition and silence the international community,” Ayhan suggested.
Even international forces that are usually quite quick to intervene in Middle Eastern politics seem to have refrained from trying to cow Assad into stepping down. If Assad goes on trial, the leader may run the risk of sharing Hosni Mubarak’s fate to be caught in the cage he had ordered for his enemies. “The massacres are not helping the cause of Syria’s defenders and will harm Assad in the end. It is turning out to be a sectarian war between the Shiite government and the Sunni majority,” Erol warned, adding, “Assad will not find comfort even with the rest of the Arab countries of the region; he is digging his own grave despite others’ attempts to spare him.”
As to what could possibly force Assad to implement the reforms, sanctions imposed by the international community may be the only available answer. Sanctions issued both by the European Union and the United States target the most powerful financial and political names in Assad’s rule, usually not too far from the Assad family line or his close chambers. Travel bans, asset freezes and arms embargoes are slammed in an attempt to dry out the flesh and blood of Assad’s government.
Mindful of the possibility of a civil war in Syria in the case of prolonging unrest, Ayhan had a possible route Assad might follow to save himself. “A luckier strategy for Assad might be to divide the oppositional Sunni voices and gain favor with Christian, Druze and Kurdish minorities to keep himself in power for another decade, after which he may finally be able to face the international community again,” said the expert, but added that it would not be wise to rely on such an option, with opposition getting stronger by day and sanctions endangering Assad’s credibility.
Two options to retreat, or not to retreat
What remains after Assad exits the scene, if he ever does despite the advantages of his young age, physical strength and pull with Iran and Lebanon, is not likely to be rewarding for the Shiite minority that has remained at the top of the food chain for ages. The responsibility of decades-long oppression and discrimination against Syrian civilians seems to have landed on the privileged minority sect. Somewhere along the road, the end of Assad’s reign may play out in a reversal of the power structure in favor of a new Sunni leader, shifting the dynamics in the region like dominos.
Syria, having traded alliances for benefits for many years, may fall from the grip of fellow Shiite Iran, meaning a strategic loss for Iran in its ambitions to breathe down Israel’s back as well as the precious feeling of company for the isolated nuclear power, much like a divorce in a very convenient marriage. Global media suggest Iran might resort to forging a new bond with Bahrain, which is going through a Shiite revolt against Sunni leaders, the exact opposite of the situation in Syria. In the process, Iran may have to rely on its multitasking abilities a little harder, supporting a revolt in one place and providing artillery to quell protesters in another while at the same time keeping its own opposition at home on a very tight leash.
To prevail over the usual white man’s burden to push, break, press and force through to liberate the Syrians, as Westerners felt they have had to do in many instances in the past, Syria feels the need to help itself on its own. This in part means destroying the very foundations that have made Assad who he is, unless the leader hands over responsibility to the international community. Either way could mean suicide for Assad, whose best interest might be to prolong the process in silence to wear his opposition down, at the same time indicating that he is, like other challenged leaders of his region, clueless on how he could pull this one off when every bullet fired in Syria melts into a 30-second video on the world wide web.
What seems to be the issue for Arab Spring anti-heroes is an apparent failure to perceive the change in the air in hopes of prolonging the one-man-rule in their countries and enjoying their unchallenged powers. The leaders seem to resist bending to avoid giving up their privileges and the impunities of those around them, but they need to be braced to break if they are planning to endure the storm.