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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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Books on Syria


Update No: 102 - (26/07/12)

And now what? Asad’s Dilemma
The situation in Syria has become ever more complicated. The civil war has reached the heart of Damascus and is spreading rapidly in Aleppo, Syria’s richest city. The rebel attacks have intensified to such an extent that it makes it impossible for analysts, and regime officials, to even consider a ‘security’ solution. Only a military solution is plausible now, meaning that diplomatic solutions and government compromises or inspired ‘democratization’ processes have failed to materialize.

The main example of the deteriorating regime authority in Syria was a bomb attack (most likely remotely detonated, though there are also rumors of a suicide bombing) that killed four authoritative figures in the Asad regime on July 19 including the minister of Defense, Doaud Rajha, the deputy Chief of Staff Assef Shaukat, the head of the crisis management Hassan el-Turkmani and the head of National Security, Hisham Bakhtiar. Regardless of whether or not this was an al-Qaida or terrorist attack, it suggests that the regime is not as impermeable as was thought and that there was an important security breach. The attack was likely caused by a carefully planted and remotely detonated explosive, which if so, would imply that there are elements within the regime that allowed it to happen and that Asad himself may face a higher risk of being eliminated. 

This reality is probably what prompted Russia’s ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, to state that it would be difficult for Asad to hold on to power and that a formal exit plan, might be the way forward along the lines of what the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) secured for President Saleh of Yemen. There is still a Baathist regime in Syria and while eroded, the core remains intact; however, it is not clear from the events of the past month and the growing international machinations what role Asad will play in it. The ‘Saleh’ formula adopted for Yemen may not work as well in Syria. Yemen had a semblance of an elected parliament with an actual opposition having ties to the organizations leading the street protests. Yemen also had far less foreign interference and the opposition remained unarmed throughout the struggle. Should Asad choose to leave Damascus with his family to take exile in Russia or one of the Gulf States, as has been suggested in a plan devised at an Arab League summit in Qatar, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the Baathist regime itself would leave with Asad. On the contrary, Bashir al-Asad may well be a moderate with an establishment willing and ready to launch a far more violent anti-opposition offensive. There is no room for compromise between the Alawite dominated Baath and the Salafist dominated opposition. Indeed, rather than the Saleh style solution, an orchestrated exit strategy for Asad would sooner resemble the solution to rid Egypt of Mubarak’s rule. 

An ‘Egyptian’ scenario in Syria is one whereby a core group, within the regime hold on to power for a transition phase, while the opposition gets organized and prepares for elections. 

Nevertheless, the Syrian situation has been allowed to grow into an intractable monster and the Tahrir Square revolt in Egypt, by comparison, is a stroll in the park! 

In Egypt, the army did not have to resort to any armed action to secure its role in the post- Mubarak Egypt, orchestrating what, in retrospect, was a soft coup against a president whose rumored plans to be succeeded by his son Gamal were too much for the army to absorb. The ‘Egyptian’ scenario in Syria revolves around an altogether more violent strategy. As the regime starts to erode from within, leaving perhaps a small loyal core of generals and officials, some high-ranking Baath Party members and military officers may be trying to exploit the situation to overthrow Asad from within, replacing him with what might be described as some kind of ‘revolutionary council’ intent on leading a more ruthless campaign against the ‘popular opposition forces’. This scenario could also involve a deployment of Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal, stockpiles of which have been moved around in recent weeks according to US reconnaissance. It is unclear who ordered the chemical weapon movements. It may or may not have been Asad; the weapon deployments could have been ordered by dissident generals eager to gain control of the deadliest weapons in the Syrian arsenal, in the awareness that such control affords a measure of greater political power. 

Chemical weapons are also being used as an excuse for greater interference from outside. While the West is highly concerned that these could be used by the Baath loyalists as a last resort against the rebels, there have also been convenient rumors spread in Washington and Tel Aviv that Asad could launch them against Israeli or possibly Turkish targets. (This is highly unlikely, of course. Asad might just as well launch chemical weapons against his own family rather than act in such a way as to alienate important allies such as Russia or China, whose vetoes at the Security Council have given Asad a veritable lifeline). Nevertheless, the ‘genie’ has been released and there is a detectable pre-Iraq war propaganda scent being orchestrated in the foreign ministries of NATO countries and their allies to use the chemical weapon threat, true or not, as the casus belli for an expanded intervention. Even Israel could take part in such an intervention; this would be highly ironic, as Israel would effectively clip the Baathist regime’s wings ushering in either a mutant Baathist monster or an Islamist dominated and disjointed ‘democratic’ government, the likes and ineffectiveness of which was last seen in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. However Asad has declared that chemical weapons would not be used against internal enemies, whilst reserving their use against foreign invaders. 

As the rebels are able to reach ever deeper into the regime strongholds of Aleppo and Damascus, even the Iraqi government is growing concerned as it prepares for the return of Iraqis who fled their country in the wake of sectarian violence. But Iraq late in July suffered a co-ordinated attack in several provinces from a revitalised al Qaida, openly directed against ‘the Shi’ite heretics’ (the government in Iraq), which is of course is exactly what al Qaida are also doing in seeking to remove their Shi’ite foes, the government in Syria – strange and uncomfortable bedfellows indeed for Turkey, the USA, UK and France. 

NATO countries, meanwhile, continue to speak of a democratic transition in Syria, even as the opposition remains as disjointed as ever and as it is clear that a replacement Sunni government would be dominated by the only truly organized, Islamist and Salafist elements. There appears to be a curious lack of concern amongst western democracies about what shape the post-Baath Syria would take. This is a problem not only for Syria but for the Middle East as a whole. Neither the opposition, no matter how well armed, nor the remnants of the regime, chemical weapon threats and all, can prevail. Syria entered the civil war stage many months ago and this war has been sustained through NATO’s tacit support of the opposition, which has been well armed from the outside. Arming factions in a civil war does not bring an end to the conflict; it prolongs the conflict. The erosion within the regime and the probable internal struggles that are developing, are leaving borders and security mechanisms more vulnerable. The opposition can acquire even more fire power. The use of chemical weapons would inevitably draw external air forces. Israel would have an excuse to attack to protect its own population and Asad or his Baathist replacement would then be able to play the Israel card in an effort to gain some last minute support from Arab nationalists. The financial backers of the opposition in the Gulf have plenty of funds to spend on armaments but while they can win the money and spending war with an increasingly isolated Syrian regime, they cannot assemble a credible government to replace it, suggesting that the civil war will continue for a long time until a new strongman emerges. It is worthwhile remembering that there was enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution against the Shah in 1978-79; the enthusiasm was short lived after a new and more insidious dictatorship made even the most adamant anti-monarchist regret the days of the Shah.

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