Unable to assuage their grievances with empty promises of reform, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad this week adopted the “Tiananmen Model” of dealing with a popular protest movement. Like the Chinese authorities in 1989, Assad on Monday sent in the tanks and thousands of troops to reclaim the streets of Deraa, where the rebellion began a month ago in protest at the arrest of schoolchildren for scrawling anti-regime graffiti. Scores of Syrians have already been killed in the regime’s crackdown, but sending in the tanks is a symbolic escalation: As Oklahoma University Syria expert Joshua Landis points out, there’s no military reason to use armor against unarmed demonstrators; its purpose is to intimidate by demonstrating the overwhelming advantage in firepower of a regime willing to use it rather than yield power.
The regime hopes that an overwhelming display of ruthless force will put an end to the uprising. That may be its only choice if it remains unwilling to contemplate ceding its monopoly on power to a genuinely democratic political order. And the regime appears to be calculating that it can muster sufficient domestic support from the ethnic, sectarian and class interests protected by the regime — and withstand any international pressure, given the West’s ambivalence about ousting Assad — to tough out the storm, and then offer more reforms, on its own terms, once its iron control of the streets is restored.
Just as the regime of Saddam Hussein had relied on Iraq’s Sunni minority to staff its administrative and security structures — and to defend their relatively privileged status in the face of any challenge by the Shi’ite majority — so does Assad’s regime rely on his own Alawite sect (comprising 12% of the popuation) to run the security forces that are the regime’s key pillar. That and the support, or at least quiescence of the Sunni and Christian urban middle class and elites, is what the regime will be counting on as it unleashes murderous violence on the rebellious towns of the impoverished and more socially conservative Sunni hinterland.
Beyond his own Alawite base, which has benefited most from the regime, Assad is expecting that key power centers inside and outside Syria will conclude that no matter how odious they find his regime, they’re unwilling to help topple it for fear of the consequences. For now, that may not be a bad bet.
This is not a regime whose security forces are likely to turn in the face of popular protests in the way that Tunisia’s and Egypt’s did — or to split in the way that Libya’s have — and protests appear to have been limited in the two key cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Landis points out that the rebellion has not managed to draw in the middle and upper classes of the main cities, who prefer stability or fear the consequences of chaos.
The same may be true for the Western powers. Beirut-based analyst Rami Khouri suggests that from a geopolitical standpoint, many of the key international stakeholders approach Syria as the equivalent of a bank deemed too big to fail.
Statements in Western capitals about imposing new sanctions on Syria are almost a pro-forma response to an unconscionable escalation of violence by the regime against its own citizens. But the measures likely to be adopted, targeting the foreign holdings of key individuals in the regime, are unlikely to alter the power calculations of the key decision makers in Damascus.
That could simply be an illustration of the problem with sanctions — experience from Cuba to Iraq and beyond shows that regimes adapt to long-term sanctions, removing the leverage that any new measures could create over important decision makers. But nobody expects Western powers to escalate to any more direct forms of coercion against Assad of the sort now facing Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. Curious, perhaps, because Assad is the Arab leader most closely aligned with Iran, the enabler of Hizballah’s military capability, and host to the headquarters of Hamas. His regime remains formally at war with Israel, and has been accused by Iraq’s government of enabling the Sunni insurgency there. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. or even Israel are ready to see the back of Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just a couple of weeks ago was still referring to him as a “reformer”, and the Administration’s policy had long been to woo his regime away from Iran.
Trying to topple it, by contrast, would be a geopolitical roll of the dice: The Western powers, and many Syrians, fear the regime’s collapse would unleash a sectarian civil war that could spread into Lebanon and Iraq. And they fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would emerge as the strongest opposition group. Even for the Israeli security establishment, Assad is the devil they know, and there’s an assumption that the Machiavellian calculations of Damascus actually function as a restraint on Hizballah — the Israelis would make Syria pay a price for any sustained offensive launched by the movement, and the assumption has long been that negotiating a peace agreement with Damascus could cut off Hizballah’s arms supplies and cool Syrian ties with Iran. If the regime goes, all bets are off. And it’s fear of the power vacuum that gives many middle class Syrians, and international stakeholders, pause before committing to topple Assad.
At the same time, however, the scale of the current rebellion suggests that it won’t be as easily contained by the brutality unleashed in Hama, in 1982, to suppress an insurrection by the Muslim Brotherhood. The economic and social despair of too many Syrians has stripped them of their fear; for a traditionally authoritarian regime the past month has seen previously unthinkable public defiance — and it’s not showing any sign of ending.
As a result, Landis predicts, the opposition will quickly turn to arms, as it did in Libya. The result, at least in the short term, may prove quite different. An armed rebellion is likely to eventually be led by the most intractable and battle-hardened opponents of the regime, which would be the Islamists. And at least in the short term, a turn to a more violent confrontation would likely reinforce the reluctance of the urban elites to back the rebellion. In the long term, he argues, their calculations will be changed by the likely economic collapse, which will eventually bring down the regime. But it could be a protracted and bloody demise.