The U.N. Security Council is set to vote on a draft resolution endorsing an Arab League plan calling for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down. But some analysts suggest that a ‘quagmire’ is a more likely outcome than regime change, suggesting that the divided and disorganized opposition is Assad’s ‘biggest hope.’
“We are heading to a vote tomorrow,” a council diplomat told Reuters on Friday on condition of anonymity, adding that it was unclear if Russia would vote in favor, abstain or veto the resolution.
At least 17 people were killed across Syria today as protesters marked the anniversary of the 1982 Hama massacre which claimed between 10,000-20,000 lives:
Many observers feel that even as the death toll from 10 months of protests climbs to more than 5,000, the regime is avoiding committing violence in such a concentrated way as was done in Hama in 1982 to avoid provoking a more dramatic international response.
“Now they need to have slow-motion killing,” says Radwan Ziadeh, a US-based human-rights activist and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, who said that although the daily average of deaths had crept up from about 30 to about 100 “that is not accelerating the international support we were expecting. They are not doing a massacre of thousands”.
Meanwhile, reports that diplomats are exploring prospects for Assad exile has prompted speculation of a Yemen-style transfer of power:
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived in the United States on Saturday for treatment of wounds suffered in an assassination attempt in June. Under a power transfer plan drawn up by Gulf Arab countries for Saleh to step down to end a year of protests against his rule, a vice president is presiding over a unity government with presidential elections set for February 21.
Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution think tank is skeptical.
“Assad and his wife get safe exile,” says Reidel, a former adviser to President Barack Obama. “But who will take him? Iran? Russia? UK? And does he get immunity like Saleh?”
The Yemeni precedent raises some warning signs, including “serious flaws that will plague attempts toward democratic transition,” writes Danya Greenfield, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:
First and foremost, the deal granted President Saleh—and all his family and cohorts—immunity from prosecution [that] is proving to be divisive and potentially catastrophic. Second, the deal was agreed upon by a coalition of Yemeni opposition parties, known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), but did not include or take into consideration other important groups with legitimate grievances, such as the southern secessionists, the Houthi rebels in the north, and independent youth activists not aligned with the opposition parties.
The fact that the Arab League has taken the initiative to stand up to Syria’s despotic regime is something that the international community should embrace. The typically sclerotic organization has taken a forceful stance regarding Al Assad’s rampage and has clearly indicated that the government’s repressive and violent behavior is no longer acceptable. …. However, the Arab League’s Yemen-scenario proposal to end the bloodbath in Syria may not be the best answer. While the two countries are quite different, the need to address important sectarian divisions and ensure that crimes committed are brought to justice are parallel concerns. Removing the head of the snake isn’t sufficient in either case.
“There are big concerns now and over transitional justice after all the gross crimes that have been committed,” says Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
On the 30th anniversary of the Hama massacre, perpetrated by Hafaz al-Assad, Bashir’s father, “it is clear that the Assads have learned nothing,” writes Ammar Abdulhammid of the Syrian Revolution Digest.
“Without external support, the protest movement has proven impossible to defeat, even for al-Assad’s machine of oppression, deemed by international human rights organizations as one of the worst in the Middle East,” he notes.
The opposition’s resilience is partly explained by the majority Sunni population’s hostility to a regime viewed as sectarian – “dominated by the Alawite community and sustained by Iranian Shia patrons,” writes Itamar?Rabinovich, author of ‘The View From Damascus’ and ‘The Lingering Conflict’
“But sectarianism is also a source of strength: a cohesive community controls the army, the security apparatus and the government machinery,” he notes.
Alawites can ensure their security by participating in the revolution, the head of the exiled opposition said today.
Burhan Ghalioun, president of the Syrian National Council also told Al-Hayat newspaper that the group favors dialogue with Iran “if they release a statement recognizing the rights of the Syrian people, a democratic regime in Damascus, and [the need] to get rid of the current [Syrian] dictatorship.”
Three factors could end the stalemate in favor of political transition, says Rabinovich:
There are three interrelated variables: the army; the bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo; and the international community. A change of attitude in one could affect the others, and tip the balance against the Assads…
The western powers, Turkey and the Arab League must expand economic and other sanctions, recognize the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and suspend Syria’s membership in Unesco and other UN bodies. Most importantly, they must overcome their own ambiguity and send a clear message to Moscow and Damascus that they are determined to act – and if need be do so – without the UN Security Council’s sanction.
“The Syrian opposition must also overcome its divisions and present a coherent front with a clear agenda that would generate more domestic and international support,” he argues.
Daniel Byman agrees.
“Perhaps the biggest hope for Assad is the disorganization of the opposition itself,” writes Byman, a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and research director at the Saban Center at Brookings:
No charismatic leader unites the opposition. Syria has strong local and regional identities, and the opposition Syrian National Council’s factionalization reflects this on-the-ground reality. How many Syrians the SNC speaks for is an open question, and critics claim it is dominated by Islamists and does not speak for many Syrians. In contrast to the Libyan rebels, the SNC operates largely in exile, because it doesn’t control a part of Syria from where it can base itself without risk. Not surprisingly, there are sharp divisions between those inside the country bearing the brunt of the regime’s brutality and those who live safely outside Syria and represent the country abroad.
“In short, the Syrian dictator is not strong enough to subdue the opposition, but they are not strong enough to oust him — a scenario for continued civil war,” he concludes.
Assad’s international allies are also likely to provide a valuable lifeline, says Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon.
“Assad has no real challenge unfortunately from the international community as his case is being barred from discussion in the Security Council, and because he continues to get material financial and military help from the Ayatollahs in Iran and Hezbollah,” he notes.
“So with having these two political assets in the Security Council and military assets in Iran, unfortunately he can stay for a long time, although he lost his legitimacy and sometimes at the end he will fall, but it may be a long and bloody process.”
Three factors will determine Syria’s future, says Benedetta Berti, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies
Much of the analysis of the crisis in Syria looks at the upheaval through a binary lens: Either Bashar al-Assad manages to defeat his political opponents and his regime survives, or the regime collapses and a new political leadership takes control of the country. But there is a third, increasingly more realistic, possibility – quagmire….That means prolonged internal violence under a weakened and failing – but neither defeated nor failed – Assad regime.
How long can the regime endure massive internal violence before imploding? In Syria, the answer depends on these three main factors:
Strength and cohesion of the regime: President Assad can count on a relatively strong and united regime and, specifically, he can count on the loyalty of the Army and coercive apparatus…..Similarly, the patronage networks created in the past decades by the minority Alawite rulers now serve as an additional incentive for security personnel and government officials alike to stand by the regime. In this sense, the regime is still strong and internally cohesive, despite some defections from the security and policy offices.
Strength and cohesion of the civil opposition: In contrast to the relative unity of the regime, the opposition forces – although having risen in power and status and being able to seriously threaten the regime – still lack strong internal cohesion. ….. The internal division is not surprising, considering the regime targeted and suppressed political opponents for decades.
Degree of international involvement: Despite its involvement, the international community – including the Arab League – has not been willing to strongly take sides in Syria, as it did in Libya. Short of this type of intervention the future of the revolt seems to depend only on the internal balance of power between the regime and its opponents.
Such concerns enhance the urgency of the debate over international intervention, writes Berti, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and coauthor of the forthcoming “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012)….
…..first through the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. Such a zone would establish a haven for Syrian civilians fleeing persecution, as well as allow the opposition forces to regroup and get organized politically and militarily. Those are key factors in allowing them to challenge the regime.