Can Syria’s Assad Fight His Way to Political Survival?

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Rodrigo Abd / AP

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes a position as the country's army advances toward the Syrian town of Sarmin on Feb. 27, 2012

Despite the death and destruction his security forces are raining down on opposition-held neighborhoods in Syria, President Bashar Assad is unlikely to succeed in crushing a year-old rebellion. International revulsion at the crackdown and the breadth of an uprising that has seen Syrians take up arms in a fight to the death also make it increasingly unlikely that Assad will manage to re-establish the status quo ante through military force. But even if he can’t win, Assad may have reason to believe, as he surveys the national and international battlefield he has created, that he can nonetheless fight to a messy draw. The difference between a draw and a defeat, for Assad, now amounts to this: Will he be at the table when a political solution to the conflict is negotiated?

The European Union on Monday announced new sanctions against Assad’s regime in support of demands that he end his assault on opposition strongholds and accept an Arab League plan that requires him to surrender power. But the E.U. measures amounted largely to an incremental tightening of those previously imposed. The meeting in Tunis last Friday of the Friends of Syria ad hoc forum also confirmed that while Western and Arab powers concur on the need for Assad to step down — and before that, to halt his assaults on rebel-held areas and allow in humanitarian relief supplies — there is limited agreement on new strategies to pursue those goals. Western powers have no appetite for direct military involvement in Syria, not only because of post-Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya intervention fatigue, but also because the sectarian and regional political stakes in Syria’s conflict threaten regionwide chaos. Support for direct military intervention appears to be lacking even if those doing the fighting are not Western troops: Qatar failed in its efforts to persuade the Friends of Syria to back intervention by an Arab force that would invade Syria to open humanitarian corridors to besieged cities.

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Qatar has since defaulted to the Saudi view that arming Syria’s rebels is, as the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, put it, “an excellent idea.” The vociferous advocacy of the Gulf states for funneling weapons to the insurgents reinforces widely held suspicions that they’re probably already doing so. There may even be some nonlethal aid from Western countries, including communications equipment, medical supplies, night-vision goggles and other such equipment, reaching rebel forces. But the Saudis, who reportedly walked out of the Friends of Syria forum at one point, allegedly decrying its “inaction,” could not persuade the forum to endorse even that idea.

The U.S. certainly remains skeptical of the proposal to send weapons to the opposition. “We don’t really know who it is that would be armed,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a CBS interview last weekend, noting the amorphous nature of the opposition and the fact that some of its elements are inimical to U.S. foreign policy goals. The Syrian opposition had the backing of al-Qaeda and the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas, she said, raising the question of whom the U.S. would be supporting if it provided arms. “Despite the great pleas that we hear from those people who are being ruthlessly assaulted by Assad, you don’t see uprisings across Syria the way you did in Libya,” she continued. “You don’t see militias forming in places where the Syrian military is not, trying to get to Homs … So if you’re a military planner or if you’re a Secretary of State and you’re trying to figure out, Do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable? That, we don’t see.”

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The U.S. and its allies may have hoped to crown the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, as they did with the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council ahead of the intervention in Libya last year, but the fact that the Tunis gathering hailed the SNC as “a” rather than “the” representative of the Syrian people was telling. The extent of the SNC’s authority on the ground remains questionable, and even its influence over the Free Syrian Army — the umbrella insurgent organization of defectors from the regime’s army and civilian volunteers, whose own control over fighting units on the ground appears to be limited — is far from established. Some have argued that providing arms will help organize the rebellion and build up the political authority of the SNC leadership under whose auspices such arms would be provided. But Clinton’s concerns may have been underscored by Sunday’s news that some of the SNC’s most senior leaders had broken away to form the Syrian Revolutionary Patriotic Group, challenging the effectiveness of the SNC and giving less equivocal backing to armed rebellion.

While the majority of U.N. member states have backed the Arab League plan, Assad still enjoys strong support from Russia and Iran, and countries such as China and Iraq insist that any solution in Syria be based on diplomatic reforms and dialogue with the regime, rather than its a priori replacement. Needless to say, the Assad regime concurs: even while it continued to rain artillery fire down on Homs and other opposition strongholds on Sunday, the regime also managed to stage a referendum on a package of constitutional reforms. Opposition leaders denounced the vote as a farce, given the war being waged, and there’s no way it could be taken as a sign of national consensus behind Assad-led reforms. But even if the regime’s claim of a 57% turnout was exaggerated, Western journalists in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo saw thousands of young voters turning out to participate in the poll in spite of opposition calls for a boycott. That served up a timely reminder that Assad’s regime retains a substantial support base, with a number of key constituencies — particularly his Alawite sect that dominates key military units, as well as Christians and other minorities that together make up as much as a third of the population — fearful of their prospects, should the rebellion triumph.

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By militarizing the political contest in Syria, Assad has effectively created a sectarian civil war that presents the Syrian population with stark choices that work in his favor. And the more intense and protracted the military conflict becomes, the greater the danger that the de facto leadership of the rebellion passes to more extreme and sectarian elements — which, of course, reinforces Assad’s own hold on his core support.

All sides in Syria, then, appear to be hunkering down for a protracted civil war — a conflict of a type that, given the external backing on which the combatants rely, is unlikely to end in a rout by either side. And if it ends at the negotiation table, as the Balkan wars of the 1990s did, Assad will be hoping at least to secure his place as a key player at the table. Indeed, even the SNC in a statement last Friday appeared to walk back from its refusal to engage with the regime, saying that negotiation — if the regime first agrees to a cease-fire — “is still possible and is likely the best way to achieve the desired goal of regime change.” Council members and Western diplomats also tell reporters that Russia’s role remains crucial in achieving any settlement to end the violence, despite its dissent from the international consensus.

No surprise, then, that E.U. officials were careful following the adoption of the new sanctions on Monday to stress the importance of the role of Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary-General who has been appointed as joint U.N.–Arab League envoy for Syria. His job, of course, will be to talk the Assad regime and its enemies into some sort of workable compromise that can end the violence.

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