As Bashar Assad Shows His Defiance, Syria Nears Its Existential Cliff

  • Share
  • Read Later
AFP / Getty Images

Rebel fighter sit watching Syrian President Bashar al-Assad making a public address on the state-run Syrian TV in Aleppo, Jan. 6, 2013.

If the geological metaphor fashionable in Washington these days can be applied in Damascus, then Syria is moving perilously closer toward an existential cliff. President Bashar Assad on Sunday delivered a dramatic aria of defiance from the stage of the Damascus Opera House, rallying his base for a fight to the finish against a 21-month-old rebellion he dismissed as an unholy alliance between the West and al-Qaeda. The hour-long speech offered little hope that Assad might be about to end the civil war that has killed upwards of 60,000 Syrians by heeding the rebels’ central demand: that he step down. Indeed, Assad rejected any negotiations with an opposition he branded “enemies of God and puppets of the West.” He would only negotiate, he vowed, “with the master, not the servants” — a signal, perhaps, that his real message was directed at Western and regional powers. Condensed to a tweet, such a message might read: “Aprés moi, le déluge. Accept my terms, or own the consequences of Syria’s breakup — which we all know you’re desperate to avoid.”

Assad did, of course, offer settlement terms, but those were not much different from his previous demands: rebels would cease attacks and outsider powers would stop backing them; state control over border crossings (many now in rebel hands) would be restored, and the regime would convene a “national dialogue conference” with those who reject violence in order to negotiate a new constitution and open the way for a political transition. Unsurprisingly, his terms were summarily rejected by opposition spokesmen who said the regime had offered no meaningful concessions. The U.S. State Department dismissed Assad’s proposals as “detached from reality” and as “yet another attempt to cling to power.” Until now, the opposition has insisted that negotiations are possible only when Assad agrees to go.

(PHOTOS: The Victims of Assad: Photographs by Peter Hapak)

“That was not the speech of a man seeking a compromise,” says Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma. “That was the speech of a man who believes his side can win. He offered no ray of hope that a political solution might be possible but instead sought to rally the troops and remind the West of the stakes.” With neither the opposition nor Assad willing to talk to each other, mediation efforts by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, strongly backed by Russia, are going nowhere. “Assad’s speech also challenges the West to rethink its policy, because the war is nowhere near an end,” says Landis. “The rebels are not getting nearly the level of outside support they’d need to destroy the regime’s military. And Assad seems to be warning that Syria itself could be destroyed in the process of bringing down his regime.”

While there’s a common perception in Western capitals that the regime is on its last legs, there are plenty of signs on the ground that it remains very much intact — and very dangerous. Assad’s security forces have been forced to relinquish control of many rural areas and have even ceded the impoverished peripheries of a number of Syrian cities, but the regime has escalated its attacks on areas under rebel control in recent months, deliberately imposing a heavier toll in humanitarian suffering. And rebels in many areas appear desperately short of funds and military resources, despite promises of expanded support from outside powers.

(PHOTOS: Syria, Decisively Seen)

Assad may have also been playing on the West’s ambivalence at the prospect of a rebel military victory by harping on the al-Qaeda theme. Washington last month designated Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-inspired militia at the forefront of rebel fighting forces, as an international terrorist organization — a move that drew howls of protest, even from the leadership of the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition.

Assad has survived, as the New York Times noted last Friday, because almost two years into the rebellion, “a critical bloc of Syrians remains on the fence,” skeptical of both the regime and of the rebels. Large numbers of Alawite and Christians who detest Assad and his regime remain unwilling to embrace what appears to many of them as a sectarian, Sunni Islamist rebellion. As Slobodan Milosevic had done in Yugoslavia, Assad has created a kill-or-be-killed mind-set among his core constituencies.

That’s not a reality easily altered by the best efforts of Western powers to foster reconciliation plans in distant capitals in the hope that these will convince most of the Alawite and Christian minorities — and even many urban, wealthier Sunnis — that they have nothing to fear from a rebel victory. Those closest to the action are often less convinced of the alternative represented by the armed rebels, even if they’re appalled by the regime’s brutality. Grotesque scenes of Alawite soldiers being tortured to death by rebel captors may not have gotten much international-media air play, but they’ve gone viral on YouTube among the communities that fear for their fate should Assad be toppled.

Fred C. Hof, who until last September was the U.S. State Department’s special adviser for the transition in Syria, wrote last week of the sectarian danger in Syria:

Some regime opponents insist … that the opposition (armed and not) remains overwhelmingly committed to a Syria of citizenship, one permitting no civil distinction among Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Kurd, Ismaili, Turkman, Druze, and so forth.  One hopes they are accurate and truthful, and not merely trying to appeal to the sensibilities of Americans who perhaps do not understand how the world really works (at least in Syria). And yet how many members of Syrian minorities — fully one-third of the country’s population — accept these proffered reassurances? Probably no more than a handful do. And why should they? What would weigh heavier on the brain of a non-Sunni Arab (or a Sunni Arab committed to secular governance): the occasional word about the primacy of citizenship, or the televised chanting of hirsute warriors and the exaltation by [Jabhat al-Nusra] in reaction to the fully justified (if ill-timed) U.S. designation of the group as terrorist?

In sum, the Assad regime has hijacked the Alawite community and large components of other minorities, holding them hostage to the survival of rule by clan and clique … If in the end Syria is really akin to Lebanon in terms of the supremacy of sectarian identification, it is finished.

That may be exactly why Assad has chosen to force what began as a peaceful protest movement for democracy onto the terrain of a sectarian civil war. This way, the stakes for millions of Syrians, and for regional stakeholders, are that much higher.

PHOTOS: Chaos and Killing in Syria: Photos of a Slow-Motion Civil War

19 comments
doodlebugger
doodlebugger

It is amazing to me how Syrian Shia Alawites can't see the handwriting on the wall for Assad.

Outnumbered 9 to 1 by Sunnis in their country, they WILL lose and Assad WILL eventually get nailed.

In the meantime, he is giving an EXCELLENT imitation of Ghadafi, Hitler, or any other two bit self styled human piece of trash whose sole claim to fame is that he lucked into or earned some power that he confutes with some superior self.

He may be one of the stupidest of the Middle east despots and he certainly is one of the meanset. Either way, hes hosed.

silephayulgirl
silephayulgirl

To choose the lesser of 2 evils. There is no question Assad is the better alternative.

timbo
timbo

when will we have a UN that acts like a UN. 60000+ dead and we are still talking.......sometimes it's embarrasing to live on this planet.

No country should have a Veto. Majority rules. Lets get in there and stop the killing first and play polotics after that.

AbaDablam
AbaDablam

Syria breaking up is not taboo anymore. Actually, the only way to go ahead despite Assad's nepharious distractions is to discuss the break up of Syria.

RIMON
RIMON

LIE, it is not state run syrian TV it says on the screen Aljazeera in arabic, ENOUGH lying and blaming the government in syria for everything and support the islamic fanatic rebels they are nothing but criminals, IF THEY TAKE OVER THE WEST WILL PAY BY THEM  A BIG PRICE.

rs_2013
rs_2013

My words to the American people and to the people all over the world, I beg you all to wake up. The "rebels" are not rebels, but terrorists backed by the West. This is FACT. The real opposition is Syria wants to sit and have dialogue with our president, but the West is not allowing them to be heard or acknowledged because they want the puppets that they have implanted to lead in the end. The rebels are people who steal, murder, rape, and do horrific things. Stop Supporting that which you do not understand. Stand with and pray for the Syrian People, for The Brave Syrian Army, for our President, and for Syria itself. 

rs_2013
rs_2013

I must correct the authors claim that the rebels are watching the presidents speech on "state-run Syrian TV", the picture that he added to his article clearly shows the aljazeera symbol flashing in the right hand corner of the screen. Does this matter? Not really, since the speech is being relayed as it is, most likely, except with the biased words of AlJazeera News, which is by far the greatest hypocritical  brain-washing, manipulative news agency in the middle east.

Bashar Al Assad is, and will remain, the sole sovereign leader of our country, Syria.

In the future, I ask the author to not use such provocative language and biased writing, as it goes against the respectable profession of journalism. Saying that a county is on the edge of its "existential cliff" is something that a mere human being such as yourself has no right, no power, and no authority, to say.

 Must I remind you of the great words of Mark Twain?

"Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. In the writings of every century for more than four thousand years, its name has been mentioned and its praises sung. To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality. She saw the foundations of Baalbec, and Thebes, and Ephesus laid; she saw these villages grow into mighty cities, and amaze the world with their grandeur--and she has lived to see them desolate, deserted, and given over to the owls and the bats. She saw the Israelitish empire exalted, and she saw it annihilated. She saw Greece rise, and flourish two thousand years, and die. In her old age she saw Rome built; she saw it overshadow the world with its power; she saw it perish. The few hundreds of years of Genoese and Venetian might and splendor were, to grave old Damascus, only a trifling scintillation hardly worth remembering. Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies. Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right the Eternal City."

noon99jaki
noon99jaki

The author sounds ridiculously naive by saying "Assad has chosen to force what began as a peaceful protest movement for democracy onto the terrain of a sectarian civil war". This is a conflict between different ethnic groups, and ultimately a conflict between big countries. 

ViableOp
ViableOp

The international efforts to punish the al-Assad regime have been minimal, largely because the SAR possesses very little in the way of economic output that is of interest to the outside world. Nearly a year ago, Secretary of State Clinton advised countries that were still buying Syria's oil and natural gas to "get on the right side of history"; while the sentiment was interesting, as shown in this article, Syria produces a volume of hydrocarbons that is completely irrelevant to the world's economy:

http://viableopposition.blogspot.ca/2011/08/syria-oil-producing-nation.html

TheDisclosure
TheDisclosure

Get your facts straight TIME. Mass media like you, among others are distorting these facts. It's time we actually address that the rebels are not rebels, but terrorists, and listen to Assad!

WimRoffel
WimRoffel

So much incorrect information in one article...

Assad is asking the rebels to surrender. The rebels are asking the same from him. Why denounce Assad as a war monger and praise the rebels as reasonable?

Then that "critical bloc of Syrians remains on the fence” myth. There are countless articles how in Aleppo and Damascus the majority of the population - and not just Alawites and Christians - prefer Assad above the rebels. And that aversion is mutual: the uprising is an uprising of the poor countryside and the poor suburbs. Rebels are pilfering and actively destroying the industrial base in Aleppo. Read for example:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/27/syrian-rebels-scramble-spoils-war?intcmp=239
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-syria-aleppo-20121106,0,3747163.story

The Muslim Brotherhood never apologized for its racist murder campaign that led to the 1982 Hama massacre and the following repression. Yet they dominate the foreign opposition as supported by the US and the Arab countries. So why should Syria's minorities trust them?

roger.robie68
roger.robie68

wow........ don't you journalists realize people never want to hear that word or metaphor again!!!!!!!!!1.... get a frickin clue

doodlebugger
doodlebugger

Assad is a killer and a fascist. Plus, hes not very bright. Speaking of which ...

doodlebugger
doodlebugger

Fascists like assad 9and apparently you) are usually not too bright but often, quite mean. In your case, if you are Sunni, and support Assad(which I find hard to believe) I have to conclude you have a reqard waiting if Assad survives longer. Either that, or you're not very good at logic.

doodlebugger
doodlebugger

Assad is a killer, and a fascist. Stick with him:. You have the same rerasoning skills as he does.

Zero:)

doodlebugger
doodlebugger

Agreed, the author is biased as are many of these posters. To me that says this is going to be really bloody because neither side is willing to compromise. Outnumbered 9 to 1, Assad is going to get hosed and his supporters are going to experience some major pay back.