Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Greatly Exaggerated?

In the aftermath of Mommar Qadhafi's death, various Middle Eastern analysts were placing bets on the imminent demise of Bashir Assad's Syrian regime. After all, anti-regime protests were still going strong after more than six months, despite repeated crack-downs by security forces. And by some accounts, Assad's sponsors in Tehran were writing him off, with Iranian diplomats consulting Saudi Arabia and Turkey on a "way ahead" once the Syrian regime collapsed.

But to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, reports of Assad's demise may be exaggerated. From today's edition of The New York Times:

The Syrian government has launched a bloody assault to retake Homs, the country’s third-largest city, facing armed defectors who have prevented the government’s forces from seizing it as they did other restive locales this summer, in what may stand as one of the most violent episodes in an eight-month uprising.


The specter of civil war has long hung over Homs, the most tenacious and determined of cities opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, where the city’s Sunni Muslim majority has closed ranks behind the revolt. This month, parts of the city have become an urban battlefield, with activists saying government forces have killed 111 people in just five days, opposition groups warning of dire shortages forced by the siege and residents complaining of lawlessness by marauding soldiers and paramilitary fighters.

The strife comes as mediation by the Arab League has apparently collapsed in one of the latest efforts to end what is among the most ferocious crackdowns on the revolts sweeping the Arab world this year. The government has increasingly demonstrated it will continue to try to stanch dissent by force, ignoring the relatively muted protests of the international community.

From our perspective, that latter paragraph (by Times' reporter Anthony Shadid) captures the essence of conditions in Syria. Arab League efforts to end the crisis have been half-hearted at best, and for obvious reasons. Many leaders in the Middle East are quite comfortable with Assad's regime; he's an established commodity (and an ally for some).

More importantly, there is genuine fear over what might happen if the current regime collapses --and what sort of government would replace it. As in other instances, "mediation" efforts are little more than a public relations ploy, creating the illusion of diplomatic action while Assad's security forces kill more protesters. The ruling elites in Tehran, Riyadh and elsewhere know that if the Syrian rebellion is successful, it will embolden domestic opposition at home, and there's no guarantee they can keep their respective genies in the bottle. So, while many Middle Eastern governments openly deplore the violence in places like Homs, privately they are cheering on Assad's security forces.

To be sure, the Syrian tyrant is a long way from reestablishing firm control over his country, but he does enjoy certain advantages. First, the western media has been effectively barred from covering the story; Mr. Shadid and his counterparts are filing reports from Beirut and other locations, well away from the fighting. They must rely on snippets of video provided by Syrian opposition groups and anonymous stringers working inside that country. While some of Assad's brutality has been captured on video (and smuggled outside Syria), much of the violence has not been viewed by the outside world, another reason for the muted global response.

Assad also has the benefit of a military and secret police apparatus that is competent and remains generally loyal to the regime. Unlike the Egyptian armed forces (who refused to intervene to save Hosni Mubarak), or the incompetent Libyan Army that couldn't save Qadhafi, the troops suppressing demonstrators in Syria are largely cast their lot with Mr. Assad and are doing his bidding in murderous fashion. While there have been some defections from the Army and intelligence services, they have not yet crippled Assad's ability to fight back, allowing him to continue the crackdown. Meanwhile, the protesters taking on the regime are poorly armed, and they can't call on NATO airstrikes to save the day.

To be sure, the future of Bashir Assad is far from secure. Losing entire cities to the opposition is not an encouraging sign, and the resistance seems as determined as ever, despite mounting civilian casualties. But Assad is a long way from joining the ranks of deposed dictators who are forced to flee, or find themselves lying in a ditch, with a bullet in their head.

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