Losing friends makes Assad edgy, but the gloves are yet to be off.
|"Arab League likes this" (Peter Schrank - Economist)|
Power perception of Syria’s decennary ruler grows stronger everyday. Assad does not need to look further to realize that this is an illusion. The demise of Gaddafi, for one, should give him a clue on what could happen if he insists on clinging on to power. However, although the point of no return is near, he could still be persuaded to introduce actual reforms.
The international pressure is rising. Upon Syria’s refusal to accept military and civillian observers to the country, the Arab League, the toothless organization with 22 members, has passed a resolution inviting its members to impose economic sanctions on Syria, a week after country’s membership was suspended. Sanctions include, among others, freezing government assets, cutting off transactions with the Syrian Central Bank and halting Arab government funding for projects in Syria. What’s more suprising for Assad is that the decision was taken nearly with unanimity. (Even repressive regimes as Algeria and Sudan voted for it) Only Lebanon and Iraq, being afraid of losing a significant political and trade partner, voted against the resolution.
Since March of 2011, protestors who seem to have lost their basic human instinct, fear, have been beating the pavement mainly in Dera, Hama and Lattakia. Despite, their muscle to impress the regime and force Assad to introduce reforms was weak six months ago, this begins to change. The army is started to fall apart; a significant amount of officiers who defect daily. The defectors became strong enough to attack the Syrian army intelligence unit near Damascus in November 16 to make an appearance. Civillians are also taking up arms. There are reports suggesting that street clashes between Syrian army and armed youth are intensified particularly in Dera. Intermittent confrontations between protestors and army also became a part of the daily life in the city of Homs. Assad administration on the other hand, tries to keep army strong by patching it up by hiring Iranian and Lebanese mercenaries. Regardless, the situation deteriorates; the death toll in November is claimed to be around 400.
What will sanctions bring?
Bearing in mind that 50 percent of exports and 25 percent of imports originate from the Arab world, it seems that sanctions could corner the Syrian government. In a suprising move, Turkey, just an observer in the Arab League, is the first to impose sanctions to Syria. Turkey’s decision is important not only in terms of economy, considering 2.2 bln $ of bilateral trade, but also of politics. With sanctions came into effect, Turkey, Syria’s only secular and democratic friend, endorsed that it has burned Assad’s boats. Nevertheless, sanctions’ effectiveness still lies with Arab governments capability to act in concert. Losing Lebanon and Iraq has already impeded League’s efforts and new leakages might make sanctions meaningless.
The Syrian government, on the other hand, continues to orchestrate pro-Assad rallies in Damascus. Authenticity of these demonstrations, however, can not be verified since that students and government officials are forced to show up. It also raised the level of repression in defiant cities and set regime’s henchmen against diplomatic missions upon Arab League decisions, worsening the already bitter situation. Such show of strength intends to prove that government still controls the majority (the two biggest cities) of the country.
But tide might turn soon. Oil and tourism revenues was declining even before the sanctions. Scarcity of critical products such as bread, heating and cooking oil is on the rise worsened and power cuts became common particularly in Aleppo, Syria’s economic capital. Although, Russia and Iran would probably try to provide aid in order to offset government’s loss of credibility, it is not sustainable in the long run. Assad’s strength is still based on Alawites and Christians (20 percent of the total population) who are afraid of a possible sectarian strife in the post-Assad era. But this fear might be temporary if opposition could prove that their ultimate objective is freedom and democracy rather than fractionalism. By doing so, they could even take along big businessmen and Syrian elite who are having a change of heart due to the rising international pressure which might lead to the implosion of the regime.
Country’s ruler is also losing the support of his long-standing fellows. Turkey, Assad’s role model since the begining of 2000s, now hosts the opposition, the King of Jordan called for a “step down” and Iran does not strongly stand by Assad as it once did. Even Hamas, run from Damascus at least for 20 years, is now silently distancing itself from the Syrian government. Since UN Human Rights Council’s Report accuses the regime for mass murder, torture and rape, China and Russia are also having second thoughts.
Taking Up Arms
Military intervention put into words more and more in recent weeks. Debkafile, a news portal close to Israel intelligence service, claimed that several army officials from NATO and Gulf States gathered in Turkey to consider military options and setting up a humanitarian corridor through Turkish border. There are also several other rumours suggesting that a possible Turkish army intervention towards Syria could be financed by gulf states.
Syria also took some precautions. According to Ynetnews, an Israeli website, Russia has delivered supersonic cruise missiles to Syria recently (see here). The site also suggested that Russia signed a contract reportedly worth at least $300 million (222 million euros) in 2007 to supply its traditional Arab ally with a large shipment of the cruise missiles (72 missiles at total).
Nevertheless, taking up arms is still dangerous. First, Syria is not like Libya. Unlike North Africa, air operations would be less effective in the Syrian geography. So a land operation might be, wrongfully so, considered which, in turn, could lead to disaster. Second, Syria is one of the many faultlines in the Middle East. The secterian division within the country is a micro model of the one in the region. Hence, a potential turmoil erupted in Syria would certainly engulf (it already has), at least, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel let alone non-state actors like Hezboullah and Hamas.
So give peer pressure another chance. Diplomatic, financial and political marking might make Assad see reason since his maneuverability diminished in recent months. International community particularly the Arab League could still narrow Assad’s options. By imposing the sanctions in unison and without any compromise, he might be convinced to introduce actual reforms, including stepping down. Albeit the point of no return is near for the regime, pushing it into the edge by martial means might lead to a civil (and probably secterian) strife not only in the country but also in the region as a whole. There is still a remarkable amount of Syrians that are indecisive on whether to support Assad or his opponents. Spraying Syria with bombs might let them choose Assad over “imperalist” backed opposition. But if he still chooses to deny what’s already on its way, peaceful means would inevitably be shelved.
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