What Does the Fall of Libya’s Gaddafi Portend for Syria’s Assad?

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Syrian President Bashar Assad speaking during a Ramadan Iftar banquet in honor of Muslim clergymen, in Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2011. (Photo: SANA / EPA)

Et tu, Ayatullah? When even Iran publicly calls on President Bashar al-Assad to respond to the legitimate political grievances of his people, you know the Syrian regime is in a corner. Even Iran’s protege and Syrian client Hizballah, in neighboring Lebanon, appears to have recognized that the status quo in Damascus is untenable, and like Tehran, appears to want to hedge its bets: Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah last week urged all political parties in Syria to work together to resolve the crisis, while Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for dialogue between the regime and its opponents to resolve the crisis. While the Iranians stressed their opposition to toppling the regime in Damascus, it did not offer an unalloyed endorsement of the crackdown.

As Beirut-based analyst Rami Khouri observed, “When Syria’s two closest allies in the world — Iran and Hezbollah — publicly acknowledge that the problems in Syria are deep and cannot be resolved by current hard security measures, this is a signal that Syria is in deep trouble.”

Indeed, many opposition elements in Syria hope that the scattering of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya signaled the coming end of the Syrian regime, and even many of the regime’s key allies are no longer betting the farm on its longevity.  Iranian analyst Kaveh Afrasiabi hears from well-placed sources in Tehran that the regime there is concerned to avoid being tethered to a sinking ship in Syria, even if right now it’s confining itself to expressing reformist sentiments previously articulated by Assad himself.

“As masters of survival who have successfully weathered the torrents of war, armed opposition and mass protests over the past 32 years, the leaders of the Islamic Republic are political pragmatists who rarely allow the rather thick lens of ideology or dogma to obliterate their grasp of political dynamics,” writes Afrasiabi. “They prefer to be ahead rather than behind political curves.” That requires a “dualistic approach” on Syria,  “one track being in league with Turkey and other regional powers pushing for democratic reform, the other still in sync with alliance politics dictating discrete support for Assad’s regime and opposing any Libyan-style foreign intervention.”

Elsewhere, sanctions appeared to be tightening, with the European Union moving towards some sort of oil embargo on Syria. And that has many in the business elite that had been one of the key props of support for the Assad regime alarmed at the prospect of slow economic strangulation — and in some cases taking a second look at an opposition movement most had initially ignored.

But sanctions are unlikely to change the balance of power in the current standoff for many months, and the regime appears to be in no imminent danger of collapse. It’s crisis is a long-term one, because its actions over the past three months may have made it quite impossible to successfully pivot from naked repression to some combination of political reform to reestablish the consent of the governed, and economic prosperity to lull them into a more complacent quiescence (as China managed to do in the years that followed the Tiananmen Square crackdown). So even if the regime can survive on a war footing for quite some time, its prospects of stabilizing its rule beyond the immediate crisis appear to have waned.

Still, there are many voices in the Syrian opposition loathe to play the long game of sanctions and non-violent protest in the face of the savage violence unleashed by the regime, and are looking instead to expedite matters through a more kinetic alternative. But the opposition remains significantly divided, and has yet to establish a single organizational center, much less resolve strategic debates such as whether to turn to arms or seek foreign military intervention along the lines seen in Libya, or address political questions such as the place of Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood in the rebellion and the status of minorities in any post-Assad order.

A recent attempt in Turkey to set up a National Transitional Council led by exiles but including internal leaders was quickly denounced by some of those based at home. The Syrian Revolutionary Council of the Coordination Committees denounced the leaders of the of the Council established in Turkey as “ghosts” who have “no relation whatsoever with the revolution”. Muhammad Rahhal, chairman of the internal revolutionary group, told Asharq al-Awsat that “we have adopted the resolution to arm the revolution, which will take an aggressive direction very soon, because what we are facing today is an international conspiracy that cannot be confronted except by armed uprising.” He charged that the world had not supported the Syrian uprising except through words. And, of course, both Kosovo and Libya suggest there’s a precedent for armed rebellions provoking a military response so vicious that it forces NATO intervention — although there are many reasons to doubt such an outcome in Syria.

Other internally-based opposition groups rejected the call to arms, warning that this played into the hands of a regime that claimed its crackdown was aimed at “armed gangs” and would diminish popular participation. “The method by which the regime is overthrown is an indication of what Syria will be like post-regime,” the internally based online Local Coordination Committees said in a statement reported by AFP. “If an armed confrontation or international military intervention becomes a reality, it will be virtually impossible to establish a legitimate foundation for a proud future Syria.”

And others argue that while Western intervention would be disastrous for Syria, a Turkish-Arab military intervention would be welcomed.

Clearly, there’s no equivalent yet in Syria of Libya’s Transitional National Council through which Western and Arab powers could direct political, economic and ultimately military aid. But, warns Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, a key “mistake to be avoided is for the West to engage with members of the opposition in an effort to produce and legitimize a so-called alternative.” He warns that the internal protest movement is not the same entity as the longstanding exiled and domestic dissident community. “Divided, all too often over issues of personality and ego, members of the exiled opposition in particular have projected the image of an ‘alternative’ all too reminiscent of Iraq. Many have taken initiatives – campaigning as leaders-to-be, convening conferences hosted by partisan states, meeting with U.S. officials, suggesting a future radical shift in foreign policy – that damage their legitimacy on the ground and prompt protesters to reject them rather than agree on a division of labor. In some cases, lack of grassroots support has pushed opposition figures to compensate by overinvesting in their reputation and recognition abroad. This trend, off-putting to most Syrians, ought not be encouraged.”

Instead, Harling encourages Western and Arab countries to begin thinking through how some of the immediate challenges of a transition on issues such as security and the economy can be addressed. The actions of the Assad regime may have sealed its fate in the long term, and negated the option of it leading a successful reform effort. But just how long it remains in power is a question that will be answered by Syrians themselves in the months ahead — in a debate that appears to be just getting started.