June 12, 2011

Can Syria's Bashar al-Asad survive "the Arab Spring?"

In what seems like a continuous refrain, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has sent thousands of troops backed by armor, artillery and helicopter gunships to attack his own people, this time in a city in northwest Syria. The move caused as many as 10,000 residents of the area of Jisr al-Shughur to seek refuge in neighboring Turkey, about 12 miles away.

The violence in this part of the country follows demonstrations and armed confrontations in Dara', located in the far south of Syria on the border with Jordan, in the industrial city of Homs in central Syria, in Hamah, the city virtually destroyed in 1982 by Bashar's father Hafiz, in suburbs of the capital city of Damascus, in the coastal city of Latakia (near the Asad family home of al-Qurdahah), and now in the Turkish border area. Jisr al-Shughur was the venue of a 1980 uprising against then-President Hafiz al-Asad; it was brutally crushed by the Syrian army.

Bashar learned well from his father. In March 1980, Bashar was almost 15 years old, certainly old enough to observe how his father handled threats to his iron-fist rule of the country and absolute control of the socialist Ba'th Party. The elder Asad sent Syrian assault helicopters carrying maghawir (commandos) into the city to conduct a ruthless operation in which hundreds of residents were killed.

Bashar was almost seventeen in February 1982 when his father dispatched Bashar's uncle Rif'at to Hamah to quell an uprising against the government orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Estimates of the dead resulting from the carnage range from 20,000 to 40,000. The numbers are hard to determine because Rifa't flattened the center of the city with heavy artillery, followed by tank assaults and house-to-house searches by the dreaded mukhabarat (intelligence service). A thousand Syrian troops died in the fighting, but in the end the city was subdues in what is described as one of the most brutal attacks by an Arab leader on his own population. The Syrian operation is referred to now as the "Hamah Rules." Of course, Hamah was before Mu'amar al-Qadhafi began to attack his own citizens earlier this year.

Like his father, Bashar believes that he has no choice but to put down any challenge to his regime with brute force. If the Syrian demonstrators are successful, which is far from decided, there will be no future role for Bashar, his family, his ethnic 'Alawi sect, nor the Ba'th Party. In essence, these groups will lose everything. Most of the senior military leadership falls into one of those constituencies, so they have everything to lose as well. It is in their interest that Bashar remain in power. That is why there have been only a few defections among the military leadership.

For the most part, Syrian troops have followed the orders of Bashar's younger brother Mahir, who Bashar has put in charge of quelling the current uprising. Like his uncle Rif'at before him, Mahir has not been at all reticent to use the full range of weaponry available to the Syrian armed forces. This includes the use of the very effective and deadly Mi-25 (NATO: HIND) gunships. When I was the air attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I would watch Syrian HINDs conducting maneuvers. It is a frightening aircraft.

Asad's handling of the over four months of demonstrations across Syria differs from those in Tunisia and Egypt, where the army refused to fire on their fellow citizens. What we see in Syria is somewhat reminiscent, albeit to varying degrees, of the reactions of King Hamad in Bahrain, President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih in Yemen and Mu'amar al-Qadhafi in Libya. The brutal action of the Syrian regime is closest to that of the Qadhafi government in Libya. The difference between what is happening in Libya and what is happening in Syria is the reaction of the West.

France, the United Kingdom and the United States (although reluctantly) declared that what Qadhafi threatened to do to his own people was unacceptable. Based on a United Nations Security Council Resolution, a coalition of forces led initially by the United States, enforced a no-fly zone over the country. NATO has taken charge of the operation and is currently attempting to force Qadahfi to relinquish power.

There is no similar action against Syria, even though the situation is equally dire. Syria plays a more important role in American foreign policy issues - the Middle East peace process, support to terrorist groups including Hizballah in Lebanon, alliance with Iran, etc. Yet, there has been nothing but rhetoric aimed at Bashar al-Asad, while Libyan forces are being attacked daily by NATO airpower. Given the treatment of the two situations, I think it is safe to say that Mu'amar al-Qadhafi will not survive the so-called "Arab Spring."

What about Bashar al-Asad? Will he and his regime survive the Arab Spring?

Tough call. I lived in Syria and watched how the Ba'th Party and the Asad family ran the place. I was there when Hafiz's eldest son and hand-picked successor Basil was killed in a senseless automobile accident. While I thought that Basil had been prepared well by his father to take over the leadership at some point, Bashar was more of a question. When his brother was killed, he was furthering his education in ophthalmology in London and was more interested in his British girlfriend than in being president of Syria. Of course, that all changed in an instant and the grooming process began anew.

In 2000, he became President on the death of his father. I was surprised at how his father had prepared the way by constructing a series of alliances in the power centers of the country. It took the Syrian majlis al-sha'ab (parliament) less than 90 minutes to amend the constitution to allow the under-40 Bashar to assume the presidency.

I must admit now that Bashar learned well from his father. Although he came into office with talk of reforming the country, opening up the economy more to market forces, lessening the restrictions on external communications, it soon became apparent that his primary function - as with most absolute dictatorships - was to maintain the regime.

The key to regime survival, as with most regimes in the Arab world, is the military. In Egypt, the decision of the military to not support Husni Mubarak led to his ouster, just as it did earlier in Tunisia when the army refused to support Zayn al-'Abidayn bin 'Ali. In Yemen, the jury is still out on Salih's fate. In Bahrain, the military supported the government, and with intervention by troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, King Hamad remains in power.

As for Bashar al-Asad, watch the senior Syrian military leadership. Bashar, and his father Hafiz before him, placed family and political allies in all the key positions, as well as in those of the pervasive intelligence service and the Ba'th Party. If there is a wave of defections in the military, intelligence apparatus and the party, Bashar's days are numbered.

I haven't seen any indication yet that causes me to be hopeful that he will not survive. My assessment is that the rest of the world will not rush to intervene in Syria as they did in Libya. Without outside intervention and the support of the army, Bashar's chances of survival remain good.