Monday 21 November 2011

Assad Keeps Fighting, But Cannot Survive

The uprising in Syria has continued unabated for the past 8 months.  Despite the fact that thousands of people have already been killed in the process, the uprising shows no signs of being quelled by the strong-arm tactics adopted by President Bashar al-Assad.  Despite Assad fighting the civilian uprising using all military options available to him, he cannot survive this challenge to his leadership.  In the interests of preventing further loss of life, Bashar should accept the inevitable as soon as possible and leave office.

The Syrian uprising has progressed in a substantially different way to the uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.  The biggest difference in Syria is the fact that the regime has managed to survive for as long as 8 months, despite constant protests by the opposition and Syrian civilians over this time.  We all know that the long-ruling and well-established governments of Gadaffi, Mubarak and others were unable to survive the attacks that they came under for more than a few months.  So what is it about Assad and Syria that has allowed him to survive for this period of time, despite having already killed more than 3,000 civilians (according to the UN) in his attempt to put down the uprising?

Despite the fact that the uprisings in other countries in the region proved to be the catalyst for the demonstrations in Syria, Assad has benefited from the fact other countries have been suffering unrest.  This has diverted the attention of the world and the international media elsewhere, while he tries to take care of his own back yard.  So far, he has managed to escape the fates that Mubarak and Gadaffi suffered when the world's leaders and media were focused on the events in these countries.  While there have been a few reports and international condemnation of events in Syria, these have not been anywhere as directed as those that were directed at Mubarak and Gadaffi before the demise of these two leaders.  In Assad's case, there are indications that this is about to change over the coming weeks and months now that Syria has been brought into target by the international community.

In the case particularly of Libya, oil had much to do with the decision by NATO to take an active part in Libya's uprising.   There can be no doubt that Gadaffi would probably still have been in power, if it was not for the role played by NATO war planes.  Even though oil exploration and export is an important part of the Syrian economy accounting for as much as 25% of the government's income, Syrian oil only makes up about 0.5% of the world's oil production.  As such, the world has not looked upon Syria with the same concern for its stability as it did when chaos ensued in Libya.  It also means that NATO has no interest in getting involved in Syria.  It enjoys little strategic relevance to the world, either in terms of its location or in terms of its production of oil.  The only possible point of strategic relevance relating to Syria is its ongoing dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights.  It is clear that the world would wish for this issue to be resolved in order to reduce the threat of a war between Syria and Israel which would, undoubtedly, drag other countries in the region into conflict.

Perhaps the most important reason why the world has not come down more harshly on Syria until now, relates to its connections with Iran.  Despite not sharing a common border, Syria and Iran have forged extremely close links over the past few years.  Ahmadinejad's Iran has proved to be the "catching net" for those countries seeking international links, but which have been rejected by countries in the west.  As one of the world's major sponsors of terror, Iran has cast its influence far and wide.  It has also stood up to huge criticism by the international community over its nuclear program, thereby showing itself as a leader of the renegade countries which oppose the influence of the USA and other western powers.  In this respect, Iran has shown itself to be quite an attractive ally for Turkey, Syria and other countries that are struggling to gain acceptance into international circles.  The world has realised that any action against Syria, effectively equates to action against Iran.

On the basis of the close links between Syria and Iran, it is difficult to separate action against Iran's nuclear program from action against Syria's extreme crackdown against protestors.  There is a view that says that the world, by escalating Iran on its nuclear program, is trying to divert Ahmadinejad's attention away from Syria in order to allow the world to take a separate position on this.  There seems to be an attempt to divide and rule.  The Arab League has taken a bold and significant stand against Syria over the past week, by suspending it from the organisation, and threatening to take further diplomatic actions against Syria if Assad does not pull his military forces out of civilian areas and halt the violence.  Although there is no love lost between the Arab League and Iran, the Arab League has taken its time in adopting this stand against Syria in view of the fact that it clearly represents taking a stand against Iran at the same time.

Despite Assad's closeness with Ahmadinejad, he will not be able to survive this uprising against his leadership.  He is destined to go the same route as Gadaffi, Mubarak and other casualties of the Arab Spring.  The question is whether he has learned any lessons from those that have fallen before him.  By hanging on to power longer than he should have, Gadaffi issued a death sentence for himself.  When his demise came, the hatred against him was such that he was never going to survive being captured by the opposition forces.  If Assad is sensible, he still has the opportunity to remove himself from power, thereby saving his life and that of his young family.  Continuing to direct his military forces to kill more civilians will make this outcome less likely, and will endanger his life further at that moment when he is driven from power.

Israel is watching carefully to see where events in Syria will lead.  The fall of Assad's regime will surely weaken Ahmadinejad's influence in the region.  Equally, any action taken against Iran's nuclear program will weaken Syria.  Assad has warned that any action taken by the international community against Syria will cause an earthquake in the region.  He knows that this is likely to drag Iran into a broader war in the Middle East, and the international community knows this too.

Ahmadinejad, it seems, is the big winner in all of this.  Leaders like Assad are running to him like little puppies in order to gain his acceptance and support.  He is standing up to the international community with his continued defiance of their calls against his nuclear program, and by continuing to fund international terrorism.  His name is on everyone's lips in the international press, and at organisations like the UN and the IAEA.  He is the modern-day version of Stalin that all seem to fear.  Even Ahmadinejad, however, cannot save Assad's head.  Assad will need to decide whether he is prepared to jump, or whether he is waiting to be pushed.  The latter option will not be without its consequences for him and his family.  Either way, Assad's eventual downfall can only be good for the region and the world by weakening Iran's influence.

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