Which Hogwarts house does President Bashar al-Assad identify with when he curls up on the couch with his wife to watch Harry Potter and the Death Hallows Part II? And when he emails her the lyrics from country-and-western crooner Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You,” declaring that “The person that I’ve been lately / Ain’t who I wanna be,” is he talking about the fact that his security forces are pulverizing the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, or has he just been a little snippy around the house with Asma and the kids that morning? What about when Assad downloads New Order’s 1987 electro-pop hit Bizarre Love Triangle from i-Tunes: is he thinking of his regime’s ties to Iran and Russia, or is he simply remembering a more carefree time on some London dance-floor before the death of his older brother — and his father’s heir apparent — Basel in 1994 dragged him back home to be groomed to run the regime?
These are some of questions that we are able to ask as as result of the extraordinary dump of hacked personal emails from the Syrian strongman and his wife published by the Guardian on Wednesday. As fascinating as they may be, however, the emails may ultimately be of more use to those marketing luxury goods (from fondue sets to Ming vases) to the cosmopolitan elites of the Levant than to those trying to understand where the rebellion that marks its first anniversary on Thursday is headed. Well, except for one thing: The emails seem to reveal that Assad is privately contemptuous of the political reforms he has offered as an alternative to international demands that he step down, and appears almost insouciantly confident that his systematic repression will prevail over the year-long rebellion against his rule, just as his allies in Tehran — from whom he is taking coaching tips — have suppressed the challenge of the Green Movement.
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Looking at the balance of forces on the ground, it’s not hard to see why he may be feeling lucky, at least in the near term. In recent weeks, he has sent armored units to recapture rebel-held neighborhoods first in Homs and then in Idlib. Having successfully driven opposition fighters outside of those areas they had held for months, he has turned his forces’ attention back to Deraa in the south, cradle of the rebellion. Of course, these operations have exacted a terrible toll in civilian life and suffering, not sufficient to prompt foreign powers capable of intervening to throw off the restraints they have imposed on themselves out of fear of the consequences of plunging into a messy civil war.
Brutal though he may have been, Assad appears to have carefully calibrated his repression to remain below some unspoken threshold — the U.N. reports that at least 7,500 Syrians have been killed over the past year of rebellion, but more than twice that number were killed in the space of a week in Hama 20 years ago as the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad bombed a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion into submission. For Western powers as well as key neighbors such as Turkey, the death toll alone has not created sufficient motivation for armed intervention given the factors giving them pause.
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The rebellion is too widespread now, and too much blood has been spilled, to be stamped out by Assad. But his forces appear to remain able to prevent rebel fighters from holding on to significant population centers. And the opposition continues to fracture, with new defections announced Wednesday from the Syrian National Council (SNC), a body which Western and Arab governments had hoped to anoint as a kind of government-in-waiting, but appears to be fragmenting. The opposition is split over questions of taking up arms, of seeking foreign military intervention, of political authority over events on the ground, and of the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. The SNC’s authority over protest groups on the ground remains questionable, and it has lately been challenged by rival formations. Nor does it control the main military umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army, which is itself very loosely organized and facing challenges from rivals. The foreign powers most inclined towards some form of intervention have made a united and coherent opposition one of their key conditions, but right now that remains an elusive goal.
Although the regime on the front foot in the military contest, political protest action continues across the country, serving as a reminder that even if it manages to force rebel fighters out of their strongholds, it is unlikely to be able restore stability that existed before the rebellion broke out a year ago. The fear that had kept the population mostly compliant in the two decades since Hama has been broken. Indeed, the scale of repression has inculcated in many in the rebel camp a belief that giving up the fight would bring certain death.
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So, the deadlock on the ground, and the division and paralysis in the international community has turned the spotlight onto a U.N.-Arab League mission spearheaded by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, sent to engage with Assad, his enemies and international stakeholders in search of a formula to end the violence. But any illusion that Assad was simply going to heed the terms of an Arab League plan that would require him to step down and hand power to a unity government was quickly dashed when the Syrian leader told Annan, last weekend, that he would not negotiate with an opposition bearing arms. And rebel groups insisted they wouldn’t negotiate while the regime was unleashing its military on opposition strongholds.
Those who had mandated Annan’s mission included Western and Arab countries that believe Assad can’t be part of any political solution and must accept his ouster, and others — most importantly Russia and China — that insist that the regime must be an integral part of any solution that has any hope of ending the violence and moving towards a more inclusive political system. Annan reports back to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, although he’ll have little choice but to ask for more time.
As the death toll continues to escalate, stopping the violence becomes the urgent priority of the international community. The fact that a year after the uprising began, Assad continues to browse the i-Tunes store in search of sentimental songs, chortle over snarky YouTube videos and watch Neville Longbottom lop off the head of Nigini the snake in the climactic battle at Hogwarts suggests he’s not done yet. After all, it’s not as if the emails revealed that he or his wife are contacting realtors in Doha or Moscow.