European Council on Foreign Relations

Assad's continued defiance in the face of growing isolation

By - 13 Jan 12

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Another month and another delusionary speech by an Arab autocrat hanging on for power. If recent history is anything to go by, surely Bashar al-Assad's end is now at hand? The Syrian president's unwillingness to concede any of the legitimate demands of protesters, his continued reference to terrorist infiltrators, and his stated willingness to maintain an "iron-fist" incurred broad condemnation and a widening consensus that his days are numbered. And, yet, to dismiss his speech and subsequent hard-line address to crowds gathered in Damascus yesterday, as the ravings of a madman and suggest that Assad is all out of ideas may also be mistaken. Is the president really facing a fight against the clock?

Despite some analysis to the contrary, Assad did not come off as wooden or uneasy during his most recent public appearances. If anything, the physical strain visible in a previous June speech was less apparent, and he spoke with the confidence of a man still in control of some of his rational powers, and perhaps even enjoying a quiet self-belief in his assessment of the regime's strength. While Assad showed apparent delusion in failing to acknowledge what is unfolding around him, the regime's brutal security response to date suggests otherwise: Assad knows what he is facing, but may not be on the back foot as much as people would like to think.

If Assad is indeed maintaining a certain confidence, this is likely to derive as much as anything from the facts on the ground. While the regime is facing an unprecedented challenge and despite the steady drumbeat of opposition activities for ten months now - including an increase in the number of daily protest over recent weeks (perhaps a positive side-effect of the much-maligned Arab League observer mission) - the balance of power on the ground has not fundamentally shifted in the opposition's favor. Most pointedly, despite growing defections among army conscripts and the burgeoning emergence of the Free Syria Army (FSA), there have been next to no defections among the regime's inner core or the key security apparatuses upon which it depends. Much of the population, despite likely sympathy with opposition aims, has remained on the sidelines; meanwhile, the political opposition continues to squabble among itself, weakening its ability to project credible leadership.

In large part Assad's speeches were aimed at shoring up this base and cementing the narrative that he has fostered since his emergence in power in 2000: without him, so goes the story, the country will descend into instability and communal violence as occurred in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. The fear that Syria could also fall into a similar form of hell - a scenario that is already unfolding in some measure - cautions many Syrians against radical change. Yes, this is a narrative that Assad is himself cynically creating through the violence of his security forces; yet to deny that it has some semblance of truth would also be mistaken. Syria's many societal and opposition divisions and its political stagnation under decades of Assad dictatorship hint at the potential for a messy transition. In his speeches, then, Assad presented himself as the vehicle of an orderly reform transition. His offer of some political change and a new constitution, counterpoised with fear-mongering references to the spread of terrorism, will strike a chord -- however delusional it may appear to outside observers -- with some elements of the population, including religious minorities, who have to date not joined the hundreds of thousands of brave protesters.

Meanwhile, his criticism of the Arab League suggests a man who has already recognised the inevitability of his international isolation, and to a certain degree may be feeling slightly liberated for having done so. Syria still gives great importance to its international position - particularly on the economic front as the impact of sanctions begin to bite - but his speech suggests that Assad may not be overly concerned. In part this may reflect his view that foreign intervention remains an unlikely prospect - an outcome Assad tried to cement in the address; by making it clear that he will battle on, Assad sent a pointed message that any intervention will come at great cost for those attempting it.

Thus, on the back of Assad's pronouncements, the options for moving forward remain as hazy as ever. Assad faces international condemnation and a widening chorus of calls to step down, but it remains uncertain just how this end can be achieved  In truth, without the prospect of some form of Libya-style military intervention, it is hard to see what the international community can feasibly do to loosen the regime's short-term grip on power. Economic sanctions will inflict pain, and may succeed in forcing the regime aside in the medium term, but the suffering they impose on the population at large is also likely to increase exponentially in the months ahead. Meanwhile, without more significant defections from the regime's core base -- including a quiet chunk of the population that continue to back him -- the fundamental pillars of the regime will not be quickly overturned. The regime is also likely to believe that in the prospect of a civil war -- a scenario that may only serve to cement its fear-mongering narrative among the silent majority -- it would maintain the military upper hand.

The principle Syrian opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC), now appears to have acknowledged this truth, calling for Syria to be referred to the United Nations Security Council and for foreign intervention, a scenario that was anathema to them only a few months ago. However, it is hard not to deduce from this transformation that the SNC, despite its growing position as the primary voice of the opposition, is increasingly out of ideas and that without foreign intervention, change - at least it the short term - is unlikely.

Despite this reality, the likelihood of military involvement by external actors remains slim at best on the basis of well-versed arguments regarding the complexities of Syrian society and the potential for devastating regional spill-over. While the international community should continue to pressure the regime with as many levers as possible, most notably by seeking some international consensus that includes Russia - which has hitherto blocked U.N. action and which is allegedly now supplying arms to Assad - it holds precious little leverage. This will have to be a Syrian struggle - and one that may ultimately have to involve negotiation with the regime if a devastating conflict is to be averted.

Assad's eventual demise is therefore by no means assured. The growing groundswell of popular opposition, widening violence, and the grim state of an economy quickly heading for collapse makes it hard to envisage how he can maintain his grip on power in the long term: while the regime has remained united thus far, it will surely eventually crack under such sustained pressure. Yet, other similarly odious rulers have survived in similar circumstance, and if Assad's recent appearances are anything to go by he may feel he can hang on for longer that many people imagine.

The article first appeared in Foreign Policy.

You can follow Julien Barnes-Dacey on twitter and listen to a recent ECFR podcast in which he examines the current situation in Syria. 


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