THE END-GAME IN SYRIA? A COMMENT
"One needs to look at it from a variety of different perspectives. First, if you look at it just from what I could describe as the Arab Awakening, what you're seeing is a leader [Bashar al-Assad] who, in the face of his people's peaceful desire for change, decided that the right answer was to engage in a kind of "killing machine," to quote the Saudi king. What you're seeing is someone who is resisting change and is prepared to use all the means at his disposal to kill his own citizens to resist that change. It is a measure of how this region has changed that the Arab League voted for sanctions.
Did the Arab League sanctions surprise you?
Although that is something that would have been literally unthinkable even a year ago, it's another reminder of the realities of the region. It was impossible for those in the Arab League to look like they would do nothing in the face of a regime killing its citizens the way the Syrian regime was doing. The first point is to put it in the context of the Arab Awakening, both in terms of what it says about a regime trying to hold on, but also what it says about others in the region who realize that you can't simply be passive in the face of that....
When the Assad regime goes--and it seems almost inevitable that it will go--it is going to be a major loss for Iran. The Saudis and others in the Gulf Cooperation Council see it through that lens.
Do we have any idea who would succeed Assad?
This is a regime that is entirely dependent on coercion, and the coercion is failing and when a regime is entirely dependent on coercion that is not succeeding, you know that that's a regime that's not going to be around for an extended period. I would say in answer to your question on succession, if you look at the Syrian National Council (SNC), if you look at local coordination committees, you know they represent a cross section of Syria.
One interesting thing about the opposition is that it's not sectarian. The Assad regime is trying to create the impression that it's the opposition that's sectarian and the reality is that it's the regime itself that is sharpening the sectarian divide and is increasingly responsible for the sectarian conflict.
When there were the first demonstrations in Syria in Daraa in March, many experts in the region thought Assad would make some reforms and that would quiet things down. Why did he become so hard line?
One of the great paradoxes is that he had presented himself to be avant garde, a reformer, a modern person, and he had convinced many that that was his persona and identity. Had that actually been the case, he would have actually been given the benefit of the doubt by the Syrian public.
In the very beginning, because he had cultivated an image of being modern and he had created the impression that he was opening up Syria, had he actually made reforms and acted on them and shown that he was truly determined to modernize Syria, both politically and economically, he could have succeeded. You asked the question why the crackdown. At the end of the day, the image he'd created about being a modernizer was purely an image and didn't reflect reality".
Dennis Ross interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman. "Why Syria's Regime is Doomed?" The Council on Foreign Relations. 21 December 2011, in www.cfr.org.
"Assad depends on the backing of key members of the Alawite clan, a quasi-Shiite group consisting of between 12 and 15 percent of Syria's mostly Sunni population. The Alawites make up 70 percent of Syria's career military, 80 percent of the officers, and nearly 100 percent of the elite Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, led by the president's brother Maher. In a survey of country experts we conducted in 2007, we found that Assad's key backers -- those without whose support he would have to leave power -- consisted of only about 3,600 members out of a population of about 23 million. That is less than 0.02 percent. Assad is not alone in his dependence on a small coalition. Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's coalition is even smaller. His essential supporters include the Revolutionary Guard's leadership, the economically essential bonyad conglomerates, key clerics, and a smattering of business interests, totaling, according to our survey of Iran experts, about 2,000 in a population of well over 70 million.
Any political system that depends on such a small percentage of the population to sustain a leader in power is destined to be a corrupt, rent-seeking regime in which loyalty is purchased through bribery and privilege. Syria possesses these traits in spades. Transparency International reports in its latest evaluation that Syria ranks in the top third of the world for corruption. So, when Assad says it is not his government, he is right. If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime. Of course, the uprising or international intervention might eventually end his rule. But those possibilities remain potential. Should the loyalty of his 3,600 supporters falter and they stop working to neutralize protest, Assad will be gone immediately. Captive to the needs of his coalition, he ignores the welfare of the 23 million average Syrians and shuns world opinion....
And with the Arab League endorsing stiff economic sanctions, Assad's regime now risks steep economic decline. With Syrians facing a society in which the rewards go to so few and confronted with the example of the uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, it is little wonder that the people have rebelled. It is equally unsurprising that the privileged few have responded brutally to preserve their advantages.
There are two effective responses to a mass uprising (other than stepping down, of course, which leaders almost never do until all other options have been exhausted): liberalize to redress the people's grievances or crack down to make their odds of success too small for them to carry on. Leaders who lack the financial wherewithal to continue paying off cronies often choose to liberalize. (Remember South Africa's F.W. de Klerk, who negotiated a government transition with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress when economic decline made the apartheid system unsustainable.) Those who can muster the money to sustain crony loyalty do so. This is why the rich oil states to Syria's south have resisted reform and why, despite its popular uprising, Libya will not become democratic. Here is another case where Assad's statement that it is not his country is true, but only partially. As president, he could liberalize to buy off those rebelling, but his key backers will almost certainly not allow him to do so as long as there is enough money to keep paying foot soldiers to crack heads. With Syria's oil wealth in decline and with stiff economic sanctions, the regime's two choices are to liberalize or to find new sources of money. They have succeeded in the latter pursuit.
Reuters reported on July 15 that Iran and Iraq offered Assad's regime $5 billion in aid, with $1.5 billion paid immediately. The $5 billion is equal to about 40 percent of Syrian government revenue. Since the announcement of Arab League sanctions, Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela have signed agreements to expand trade and investment in Syria to the tune of more than $7 billion in 2012, including building an oil refinery. That is just what Assad's political-survival doctor ordered. This injection of cash in the short term is likely to keep the military and security forces on his side. The military core of his coalition is likely to do whatever it takes to keep the president in power as long as that money keeps on flowing. That is the essential synergy of all leader-coalition arrangements".
Alastair Smith & Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, "Assessing Assad: the Syrian leader isn't crazy. He just doing whatever it takes to survive." Foreign Policy. 20 December 2011, in www.foreignpolicy.com.
The two above differing assessments of the current situation in Syria raises the acute question as to the the likelihood of the survival of the Assad Regime. For the most part it is not so much differing data which results in the differing assessments of the future trends in Syria so much as the differing views of the weight to be given to certain pieces of data. Dennis Ross the ultra-intelligent, veteran State Department & NSC official places it seems to me greater weight to the regional dynamics and opinion as well as the fact that per se Assad has not totally crushed the opposition to his regime. That notwithstanding the five thousand, mostly civilian and opposition deaths, there are still ongoing demonstrations and even armed attacks on the regimes forces. What I would say that Ross is missing is that the sine qua non of the fall of the Assad Regime is not merely the fact that the regime seems to be unable to crush the opposition, but that the regime commences losing territory, space to the opposition. Cities, towns, provinces, et cetera. At present there does not appear to be anything of this sort occurring. For reasons which are cited by Messieurs Smith and Mesquita. I myself would place a great deal of importance on the fact that the regime has been able to obtain financial assistance from its allies such as Persia, Iraq (!) and Venezuela as well to a lesser extent Russia and China. And while economic sanctions by the European Union and the Arab League will no doubt hurt, it seems to me that as long as Persia in particular is willing to under-write financially the Assad regime, then it is much, much too early to make predictions of its downfall 1. In the absence of course of outside military intervention by either the Turks or the NATO powers. Something which at the present time seems to be a very very far prospect indeed. For my own part, my surmise is the short of outside intervention or an internal military coup d'etat (also to my mind very unlikely) the Assad regime will be able to surival in power, albeit with difficulty. Just as the regime of Saddam Hussein was able to survive in power after both its defeat in the First Persian Gulf War and the twin uprisings by the Shiites in the South and the Kurds in the North, and the rigors of the sanctions regime from
1991 to 2003 2. A situation which informed opinion argued, Hussein was surviving quite easily 3.
1. For how ambiguous is the Arab League's role in the Syrian Crisis, see: William Wallis, et. al., "Alarm as Arab League Monitoring appears to play down Syria crisis."
The Financial Times. 29 December 2011, in www.ft.com.
2. For negative reviews of the sanctions regime, see: F. Gregory Gause III, "Getting it Backwards on Iraq." Foreign Affairs. (May / June 1999), pp. 54-55, et passim; Daniel Byman, "Farwell to Arms Inspection." Foreign Affairs.(January / February 2000), pp. 119-132. For the non-likelihood of American & or NATO military intervention in Syria, see: "U.S. quietly preparing to support the Syrian Opposition: report," Syria Comment 30 December 2011, in www.syriacomment.com.
3. See, Gause, op. cit., p. 55, where he states: "crippling economic sanctions on Iraq that have neither weakened Saddam's hold on power nor prevented him from pursuing his WMD programs" (sic!). And of course the ultra-influential The Threatening Storm: the case for invading Iraq. by Kenneth Pollock, (2002), pp. 71-103, 211-233 & passim.