Syria’s leader does not seem happy in his work. As the crisis deepens, he could choose to run, to fight or to negotiate
Bashar al-Assad went into typical passive-aggressive mode in his Damascus speech, vowing to crush dissent while simultaneously promising vague reforms. Broadly defined, this sort of behaviour involves procrastination, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, obstructionism, self-pity and a tendency to create chaotic situations. Since the Syrian uprising erupted around his ears last March, Assad, who never really wanted the presidency and has proved himself spectacularly ill-suited to it, has exhibited all of these character defects and more.
The Syrian leader’s state of mind is increasingly relevant as the nine-month-old national crisis deepens, with no sign yet of how or when it may be resolved. Critics say the president is isolated and out of touch with reality; others that he is a pawn, or even a hostage, in the hands of more powerful relatives and military figures. He certainly does not give the impression of being happy in his work.
Whatever the truth, with the deaths of at least 5,000 people laid at his door, with Arab leaders joining the US and Europe in demanding his resignation, with the prospect of a UN crimes against humanity prosecution looming and with the regime’s collapse and all-out civil war a distinct possibility, the pressure on Assad must be all but unbearable. Will he crack? And what are his options?
If the situation gets simply too hot to handle, Assad could try making a run for it, as did the Arab spring’s first victim, Tunisia’s former president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. He headed for Saudi Arabia, a favourite refuge for displaced dictators such as Uganda’s Idi Amin and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. Assad turning up on their doorstep would be an embarrassment for Saudi leaders (who do not like him), but if it brought stability back to the region, it might be worth it.
Alternatively, Assad could make a dash for Iran, his long-time ally, or even Russia, which has consistently shielded his regime from international censure and has sent a naval taskforce to the Syrian port of Tartus in a show of solidarity. If he does decide to leg it, a key consideration will be what to do with his British-born wife, Asma, and their three children. Any request from her to return to her family home in Acton, west London, could present Britain with an interesting diplomatic and security headache.
Assad insisted in his speech that he was not going anywhere. But Gaddafi-style, he also sounded seriously deluded. “I am not someone who abandons responsibility. I am in this position because of support from the people and if I leave, it will be because of the desire of the people.”
The current approach to the crisis comes straight from the play-book written by Assad’s late father, Hafez. He notoriously put down an earlier uprising in Hama in 1982, when up to 10,000 people are said to have died. The difference this time is that, so far at least, bloody repression has not worked and the unrest in not confined to one city or region. Increasingly, regime opponents backed by defecting military personnel have resorted to armed resistance across the board. Assad also says they are getting assistance from abroad, a claim that is difficult to verify.
“The situation in Syria is heading towards a religious, sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, warned this week, voicing a concern that is shared across the region and in the west. Assad’s dilemma is that if the killing continues unchecked – in other words, if he cannot definitively reassert his control – the Arab League mission may be discredited and withdrawn, leading to direct UN security council action and possible Libyan-style intervention.
So far there is no sign the violent crackdown is working. But in his speech, Assad suggested he would not change tack – while again appearing to deny reality. “There is no cover for anyone. There are no orders for anyone to open fire on any citizen,” he said. His main aim was to restore order and this could only be achieved by “hitting terrorists with an iron fist … there is no tolerance for terrorism or for those who use weapons to kill”.
Assad again floated vague promises of reform, including a constitutional referendum on a proposed multi-party system in March. But his credibility is shot among many, if not most, Syrians after years of failing to carry through similar pledges. If Assad pushed for genuine change, he could risk being dumped by regime associates, notably by his tough-guy brother, Maher, the most powerful man in Syria’s security apparatus who is blamed for much of the recent killing.
Assad has also burned his boats with leading Arab states and western countries, including the US and Britain, which initially entertained high hopes of his leadership when he took over in 2000. They and neighbours such as Turkey now see no alternative but for him to stand down. Ironically, Israel – Syria’s old enemy – might prefer it if he survived, for the sake of a stable border. And if the alternative to Assad is an anti-western, Sunni Muslim-led regime, then the US and Iraq, for different reasons, might also secretly prefer him to stay.
Apparently heedless of such nuances and of his need for support if he is to negotiate his way out this mess, Assad poured contempt on fellow Arab leaders in his speech. “The Arab League has failed for six decades to take a position in the Arab interest … We should not be surprised,” he said. Yet at the same time he said Syria would not “close the door” to any Arab proposal that respected its sovereignty and unity. This suggests he still hopes for some face-saving regional formula that would enable him to stay in power.
Egypt may yet serve as a model for what happens in Syria. In this scenario, the regime figurehead – Hosni Mubarak/Assad – is removed and put on symbolic trial but the regime itself, represented by the military and other powerful insider forces, having offered up this high-profile sacrifice, remains largely intact. The revolution appears to have succeeded, the violence mostly stops, and there is a big celebratory party. But the morning after, it slowly dawns that nothing much has really changed.
Source: The Guardian