By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
Like his father before him President Bashar Assad comes out as a cool customer; resolute, poker faced and cryptic. In his first interview this week to a Western newspaper since mass unrests broke out in Syria last March, he was also threatening and unyielding as Arab and international pressure to end months of bloody crackdown against protesters mounts. He warned that foreign intervention in Syria would cause a regional earthquake and “create tens of Afghanistans.”
President Assad talked about his commitment to political and economic reforms, and how Syria is different from Libya and any other country; that it sits on a strategic fault line and that any foreign intervention would end up dividing it and creating regional havoc. He dismissed the newly formed Syrian National Council, a coalition of dissident groups and opposition parties whose declared aim is to topple the Baathist regime that has ruled Syria for decades.
What he failed to explain is how after more than seven months of brutal assault by the military and regime thugs most of the cities and towns in Syria remain rebellious. At least 3000 people have been killed and tens of thousands arrested. The army has been unleashed to bomb, besiege and subdue major cities like Homs, Hama and Latakia. The official version of events, that the protesters are mainly infiltrators, paid up to destabilize Syria and serve a foreign agenda no longer holds water. Even Assad’s closest allies like China and Russia are now calling on him to stop killing his own people and initiate dialogue to launch genuine reforms. Others, like Europe and the United States, believe it is already too late and that the Assad regime has lost legitimacy.
But Assad is right in his assessment that Syria is not Libya. Unlike Col. Muammar Qaddafi, President Bashar Assad has a more sophisticated loyal base; party apparatchiks, a well organized army, key mercantile figures and various sects including his own; the Alawites who make up no less than 10 percent of the population. He has some compelling cards in his possession that range from Syria’s influence in Lebanon, Iraq, the Kurds along the borders with Turkey and his country’s uneasy truce with Israel.
He has warned that Damascus has been fighting the Islamists for decades and that they stand to gain if his grip on authority is loosened. But in many ways President Assad is barking up the wrong tree. Since he came to power in 2000 he projected himself as a reformer with new ideas. As a physician who was trained in the West, spoke perfect English he could relate to the yearnings of his people, especially the youth. But until the arrival of the Arab Spring early this year, he had little to show for his promises. He had initiated some economic reforms, allowing the private sector to play a bigger role, but the trickledown effect has been meager. On the political front, the Baath Party remained the only legitimate power and Syria continued to be run as a police state. The “Damascus Spring,” a period of intense political debate and calls for openness that started after the death of Hafiz Assad was short-lived.
President Assad has misread the political, social and economic changes that had taken place globally, and, more importantly, regionally, just like his opposite numbers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The irony is that he could have avoided the current standoff if he had pushed through with reforms. Even now and after announcing a number of political initiatives, since the eruption of the uprising, there are no signs that he is serious about carrying out fundamental political changes.
An Arab League ministerial committee, headed by Qatar, is trying to get him to accept a working proposal that would end the violence, withdraw the army from cities and initiate dialogue with the opposition. So far he has been vacillating. Even if he accepts his credibility remains questionable.
There are no signs that popular protests are receding or that the army and the regime’s henchmen are backing off. More people are being killed every day. There is evidence that army recruits are defecting and in some instances armed clashes have taken place between regulars and dissidents.
The problem with Assad’s behavior of denial, defiance and issuing threats is that it does not add up to a good strategy to end the protests and bring peace to Syria. Outside pressure will continue to build leaving his regime isolated and in dire economic shape. It might be too late to bring about national reconciliation, and even if the international community, namely the US and its allies, decides not to replicate the Libya model in Syria, President Assad will soon find that he is running out of options.
To go on with killing protesters and bombing cities is a recipe for self-annihilation. To play the sectarian card and pit his countrymen against each other will ensure his defeat at the end. And very few observers believe that he will be reckless enough to stir trouble with either Turkey or Israel at this juncture.
His only hope for now will be to embrace the Arab initiative and engage the opposition in a meaningful dialogue over Syria’s future that could pave the way for a peaceful and democratic transition of power, avoid foreign intervention and ensure him an honorable exit from the scene.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.