Syria: a word of caution

Defense Minister Ehud Barak was reported as predicting that the regime of Bashar Assad would fall within weeks.

Certainly things are not going well for the Assad family dictatorship. The bloodletting continues as the Free Syrian Army and other insurgent groups continue to strike at government forces. Economic sanctions endorsed by the Arab League are to take effect December 27. The economy is expected to sharply contract in the year ahead, in the wake of EU sanctions already in place and the collapse of the tourism industry.

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And yet, observers should be careful before confidently predicting the imminent fall of the house of Assad. They have being doing so since April, but the dictator is still there. Notwithstanding his recent absurd performance on ABC News, he may well be with us for some time to come. The factors that have kept him in place so far largely remain.

Firstly, the Assad regime is not friendless or isolated, despite the sanctions. Most importantly, its Iranian strategic partner is still there.

The mullahs stick by their allies. The Iranians have been providing material, advice and possibly also personnel to help Assad’s bloody fight against his own people since it began. This patronage has just been publicly reaffirmed and shows no sign of tailing off.

Russia and China are still there too. Their support is preventing any effective response to the bloodletting from coming through the UN Security Council.

Syria maintains its friends in the Arab world, too. The Maliki government in Iraq is developing as a close ally and trading partner.

In line with its orientation toward Iran, Baghdad voted against the Arab sanctions on Damascus. Hezbollah in Lebanon, of course, depends on Assad’s survival to maintain its strategic position. So Assad is not alone.

Secondly, the half-hearted Arab League “protocol” for resolving the issue is intended largely to prevent a more determined international response.

The Arabs do not want to see another Western military intervention into the heart of the Arab world. The League’s plan is intended to prevent this, by pretending to represent an alternative Arab road to reform in Syria. It is, meanwhile, bogged down in endless quibbling and prevarication over the issue of Arab observers in Syria.

Even if Assad were to agree to these, they would make no discernible difference. Leaving the Syrian issue in the hands of the Arab League means leaving Assad in power.

Thirdly, Assad’s security forces, despite the large number of desertions, remain structurally intact. In the Syrian Arab Army the dictator possesses large and effective instruments of suppression, including the four large security services and the amorphous and brutal gathering of Alawi gunmen known as the “Shabiha.”

By contrast, the opposition remains divided and unsure of its strategy. Its armed capacity, while determined, is vastly smaller and less powerful than that available to the dictator.

Political power, ultimately, derives from superior force.

The Syrian opposition lacks this, and hence possesses no mechanism for seizing power.

It also remains divided against itself, with the main political and armed wings disagreeing over tactics, and a number of smaller political groupings declining to accept the authority of the Syrian National Council.

So reports of Assad’s demise have been much exaggerated.

If things are left as they are, the prospect in Syria is for a bloody civil war, the outcome of which remains uncertain.

The move that could change this would be an internationally backed establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria, and sponsorship and training for the opposition. This would provide ground and cover for the growth of a coherent political and military challenge to Assad. It does not look immediately imminent.

Short of this, despite the latest optimistic predictions, Assad will probably be around for a while yet.

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