For the past year, I've been intrigued listening to expert after expert tells us that Bashar Assad is going down and his ouster is just a matter of time. He has been called a "dead man walking" by the U.S. State Department. Israel's defense minister has insisted that Assad will fall in a matter of weeks. Just last month, President Obama said, "Assad's fall is inevitable." Yet, barring any major violence on the part of the regime, it seems far more likely that Assad will remain in power.
|Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) and his wife Asma (R) prepare aid for Homs citizens at al-Fahya stadium in Damascus in this handout photograph taken April 16, 2012 and released on April 18, 2012 by Syria's national news agency SANA.|
Moreover, Saddam Hussein was in a worse situation after 1991, where most of Iraq was a no-fly zone and international sanctions weighed heavily on his economy. Bashar Assad on the other hand, is in a better situation. He has the support of the Iranians who have been providing material, advice and possibly also personnel to help him fight against the resistance. Russia and China are still there too. Their support is preventing any effective response to the bloodletting from coming through the UN Security Council.
Syria also has friends in the Arab world. The government in Iraq is developing as a close ally, in alignment with Iran, Baghdad voted against the Arab sanctions on Damascus. Assad is not alone.
Furthermore, the internal balance of power is still in his favor. For now at least, he has maintained strong support from the Sunni population within Syria. This support is based on economic advantages that were accrued during the liberalization of the Syrian economy at the expense of the poor, who make up most of the protest movement. By granting Sunni urbanites significant leeway in the economic sphere, and also avenues for advancement in the state structure, a tacit Alawite-Sunni contract was formed. In addition, as a secular Baathist regime, the Assad regime has avoided playing the “religion card.”
Assad’s foreign policy record has been impeccable and widely admired. Of course, positioning the country against American actions in the region and standing up to Zionism can only buy a leader so much support, but it highlights a major difference between Syria and Egypt, where protesters also despised Mubarak's alliance with America and Israel. In other words, the protests are "only" of a domestic nature. While the protesters are looking for reform and change in the domestic sphere, most Syrians are happy with the international orientation of their country.
There is also a Western fear of change in Syria. The United States and Israel would not be comfortable with a Sunni majority government in Syria. Paradoxically, those countries that Assad has defied are the same ones that are looking to prevent his fall. Syria’s strategic importance also helps to explain the lack of attention it is getting. Interested parties – the U.S., Israel, other Arab regimes, etc – would much prefer that the problem went away. Some of them recognize that Syria will have to change eventually but they are fearful of the possible outcome and don’t really want any more uncertainties at the moment. While they probably won't do much to prolong Bashar's stay in power, they won't try to tip him over the edge either – at least, not at this stage.
Most importantly, we don't know whether, or to what extent, the Syrian opposition will get serious foreign support, which may be the crucial element in deciding Assad's fate. The opposition remains divided and unsure of its strategy. Its armed capacity, while determined, is vastly smaller and less powerful than that available to the dictator.
Superior force ultimately gives rise to political power. The Syrian opposition lacks this feature and possesses no means for seizing power. It also remains fragmented against itself, with the main political and armed wings disagreeing over tactics, and a number of smaller political groupings declining to accept the authority of the Syrian National Council.
If things are left as they are, the situation in Syria will end exactly as the sitution in Iran did in the summer of 2009. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest the newly won presidency of Ahmadinejad. The regime cracked down, dissidents were arrested, tortured, and slaughtered, and the regime survived.
The only thing that could bring regime change in Syria would be an internationally backed establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria, and sponsorship and training for the opposition. This would put political and military pressure on Assad and provide an umbrella for the resistance in Syria. It does not look immediately imminent. Short of this, despite the latest optimistic predictions, Assad will probably be around for years to come.
The writer is Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at The University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio.