The Fate of Bashar Assad: Will He Be the Next Gaddafi or the Next Milosevic?

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Li Muzi / Xinhua /

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C) speaks at Umayyad Square in Damascus, Syria, Jan. 11, 2012.

The fighting words from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who vowed Tuesday to hold on to power and crush his opponents with “an iron fist”, were optimistically interpreted by some as the bluster of a doomed man. To be sure, the speech echoed some of the themes of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s valedictory rants in the months before his ouster and murder. And the Syrian regime’s ongoing violence against demonstrators, even in the presence of Arab League monitors to whose organization Assad had pledged to halt repression, underscored the unlikelihood of the crisis being resolved through reform and dialogue. Almost a year later, the rebellion remains resilient, and it is increasingly turning to arms, as deserters from the regime’s forces mount an insurgency.  But despite the mounting carnage and diminishing hopes for a political solution, the foreign military intervention that tipped the balance against Gaddafi is not likely to be repeated in Syria, and Assad may yet remain in power for quite some time. His strategy? Militarizing the conflict and framing it in sectarian terms, while casting himself as the protector standing between important segments of Syrian society and the things they fear most.

The relevant playbook, then, may be less Gaddafi than Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman who managed to remain in power by manipulating ethnic-sectarian tensions, orchestrating periodic waves of bloodletting despite Western interventions, always making himself indispensable to securing the peace. (And Russia, which backed both Milosevic and Assad, is far more assertive and willing to challenge Western powers now than it was during the 1990s.)

Assad has engineered a situation where the civil protest movement against his authoritarian regime is being eclipsed by a dynamic of insurgency and civil war, with a strongly sectarian character. And that gives pause to those countries with the capability to intervene.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once a friend and ally of Assad but now one of his harshest critics, warned on Tuesday that Syria “is heading to a religious, sectarian and a racist civil war”, and that would oblige Turkey to play a role because such a conflagration “also poses a threat for us.”

As the second largest army in NATO and a predominantly Muslim neighbor, Turkey would be the natural candidate for any boots-on-the-ground intervention. Turkish officials have previously raised the possibility of their forces creating a “buffer zone” inside northern Syria as a safe haven for those facing persecution by the regime—and, inevitably, a platform for the insurgent challenge to Assad. (Turkey already plays host to the Free Syrian Army, an organization of defectors from Assad’s forces mounting a guerrilla campaign inside Syria, although it’s not clear that the group is allowed to use Turkish territory for operational purposes.) But Turkish officials insist that they would not act in Syria without United Nations authorization, and the prospects of obtaining such authorization remain remote in the face of determined Russian and Chinese opposition. Moscow has, in fact, stepped up its direct military support to the Assad regime, which provides the Russian navy with its only deep-water port in the Mediterranean at Tarsus.

Security Council opposition is hardly the only factor restraining Turkey and others from intervening. As concerned as Erdogan is over the conflict that has, over nine months, seen thousands of Syrians killed by their regime, his more pressing  security concern may be Turkey’s own, restive Kurdish population. Damascus has previously backed Turkey’s sworn enemy, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is once again locked in a campaign of escalating violence and counter-violence with the Turkish authorities. Syria’s own Kurdish minority has largely stayed out of the uprising, and may be more inclined to side with Assad than to support his violent ouster by a predominantly Sunni insurgency.

Regardless of their views of Assad and his handling of the crisis, fear of a violent takeover by Sunni Islamists also keeps much of the Allawite and Christian minorities —and even the Sunni merchant elite—onside with the regime, if increasingly uncomfortable. The reason Assad’s regime has not collapsed in the face of almost a year of open rebellion and mounting sanctions, may be that it retains enough domestic support to sustain its power.

Outside intervention, which would reinforce the regime’s claim that the uprising as a foreign plot, would likely encounter substantial resistance from loyalist troops and Allawite irregulars who, as the Center for Strategic and International Studies warns, see a grim fate for themselves in the event the regime is overthrown.

“Given their limited prospects in a post-Assad Syria,” the Washington-based CSIS warns, “heavily Alawite elite units and sizable numbers of loyal Sunnis will perceive no alternative to defending the regime in the event of wider intervention.”

The regime retains substantial missile artillery and even chemical-weapons capability, and could be expected, should it find itself on the ropes, to further muddy the waters by launching attacks on Israel in the hope of drawing it into the fray. (Even the opposition Syrian National Council has declared that, while it might end the country’s alliance with Iran, it would demand the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and would make peace with Israel only when the Palestinian did.)

Syria’s civil war has already crossed over into Lebanon and Iraq, where it could unleash far wider instability as Sunni militants making common cause with their Syrian brethren, while the Shi’te Hizballah movement and the Shi’ite led Iraqi government join with Iran in backing Assad. Escalation of the Syrian power struggle would be difficult to contain within Syria’s borders.

That may be why the Arab League, whose monitoring mission and agreement with Assad has been an embarrassing failure, has operated on the basis of a vain hope that the regime might reverse and reform itself.

It would certainly be unwise to expect any Arab unanimity on pressing for military intervention. As much as they may loathe Assad and his Iranian allies, even many of the Arab monarchies may be reluctant to risk the unpredictable consequences of the collapse of yet another key pillar of a regional security order founded on  authoritarian stability.

Divisions among Syria’s opposition also hasn’t helped make the case for intervention. Many opposition supporters are now calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone, although they probably mean something closer to the Libyan example, for which “no-fly zone” was a euphemism for what became offensive air support mission to enable rebel forces to win the war. Some confusion remains, however, over the position of the Syrian National Council, ostensibly the main opposition umbrella group based in Istanbul. Its leader, Burhan Ghalioun, drew howls of protest two weeks ago when he signed onto an agreement with the more moderate Damascus-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (dismissed by many SNC supporters as Assad’s loyal opposition) and the Arab League that explicitly rejected any foreign intervention, and promised dialogue with the regime. Ghalioun later reversed himself, and has now called for a no-fly zone along the Turkish border, but without the broader attack on Syria’s air defenses that started the equivalent campaign in Libya. (That would be a non-starter, of course, for NATO, which would begin any such mission by destroying the regime’s ability to attack alliance planes in its airspace.)

It’s increasingly clear, however, that the SNC’s  authority over anti-regime activists on the ground is limited. Nor does it control the Free Syrian Army, which in turn may have little control over the autonomous fighting units that operate in its name on the ground.

Nor does the FSA appear to represent a force capable of toppling the regime in the near future. “Their size, structural limitations, their predominantly Sunni character and as-of-yet limited command and control and offensive capabilities mean that the FSA has limited prospects in the short term for presenting a meaningful counterweight or alternative to the Syrian military,” notes the CSIS. “It is far more likely that the group’s insurgency will be used as a platform by the Assad regime to weaken an already divided Syrian opposition.”

Indeed, the military escalation of the challenge to Assad arguably plays to the regime’s strengths. As the CSIS notes, “the Assad regime has managed to escalate Sunni-Alawite tension to the point that it has taken a life of its own and could be difficult to bring under control by any of the country’s political forces. This presents the risk that any escalation in Syria’s instability is likely to be sectarian, with real prospects for deepening divisions and broadening communal segregation.”

Or, in other words, Balkanization. It’s worth remembering that Syria, like Yugoslavia, was invented after World War I on the remains of a collapsed empire. One reason its ruling ideology has been more Pan-Arabist than nationalist, per se, is that the bonds of nationhood tying together its disparate communities may not be particularly deep or enduring. Whether Syrian nationhood would survive a civil war is an open question—one that international and regional powers mindful of the consequences of a centrifugal collapse of state power in Syria  may not be willing to ask.

That leaves Syria’s opposition facing a long, bitter and lonely fight, in which foreign pressure is likely to be restricted to the economic strangulation that will slowly degrade the regime’s ability to maintain its support base. Milosevic ultimately got his comeuppance in 2000, when he was overthrown by his own people and soon after packed off for trial at The Hague, where he eventually died. But that was nine years after he plunged Yugoslavia into bloody chaos.