Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Assad regime is trapped by its own repressive tactics

Amid mass arrests throughout Syria, the partisans of President Bashar al Assad now believe that they have gained the upper hand over the burgeoning protest movement. That may be true, although this seems far from being a foregone conclusion. But repression will not solve Mr al Assad's dilemma: his regime has shown itself to be utterly incapable of reforming, so the forcible silencing of Syrian society may lead only to an extended, debilitating stalemate that leaves the country's problems unresolved, and irresolvable.

When the uprising in Syria began earlier this year, foreign governments urged Mr al Assad to introduce reforms. However, in the Syrian context, reform is shorthand for the collapse of the Assad-controlled order. If the leadership was to implement reform by opening up the political system and allowing free elections, permitting independent media, introducing the rule of law, ending the paramount role of the Baath Party and cutting the powers of the myriad security agencies, that would be tantamount to political suicide. Mr al Assad never had any intention of taking such measures, and will not do so at present, especially if he crushes the revolt.

The notion that the extended Assad family will compromise once, or rather if, it snuffs out the demands for a freer society is laughable. The system put in place by the late Hafez al Assad was a citadel of deadlock and equilibrium: security services balanced off other security services; military units balanced off military units; senior Alawite officers balanced off senior Alawite officers, all of whom held in check senior Sunni officers. And Assad family members balanced off other family members. To an extent, even the president himself had to respect the interests of Syria's different power centres, which is why Hafez managed so little economic restructuring.

What the Assads have fought hard to protect by deploying their praetorian guard units and manifold security apparatuses - not to mention gangs of Alawite gunmen, - they will not soon risk losing by embarking on a project of genuine transformation. Nor, if Mr al Assad holds out, will he have any motive to do so. The philosophy of power in Syria is stark: if you have power, maintain it at any cost, otherwise you will lose all power - precisely the precept that the Syrian ruling family has lately been applying. However, it does contain a fatal flaw in that it leaves the president no room for flexibility.

That is why, once the demonstrations began, Mr al Assad cried out that it was all a foreign-sponsored conspiracy in support of domestic Syrian jihadists. Precisely how this narrative squared with the regime's decision to lift the state of emergency in place since 1963, or pretend to, was never quite explained. But the only instrument the Assads could readily deploy was heightened political paranoia, justifying their brutal suppression of largely peaceful dissent. Worse, the regime resorted to sordid communal provocations, sharpening sectarian tensions by playing on minority fears of a vengeful Sunni resurgence, one that allegedly had taken on Islamist overtones.

These types of manipulations may be useful in the short term, but they are also undermining dangerously a long-standing foundation of Assad rule, which Hafez worked very hard to put in place. The former Syrian leader, even as he established mechanisms of Alawite self-defence to preserve his dominance and that of his community, strenuously avoided accentuating overt sectarianism or allowing head-on clashes with the Sunnis, at least when he could. This he did, in part, by allying himself with an urban Sunni business class and also portraying his regime as a vanguard of Arab nationalism, thereby playing down sectarian identities by amplifying the pan-Arab principles once embraced by a majority of the region's Sunnis.

Today, the pillars of Assad power have all been severely shaken. For all intents and purposes, the Syrian social contract, or what passed for one, is buttressed by no more than bullets. The regime's legitimacy lies shattered, propped up only by fear and a military occupation of Syrian cities and towns. Even if protesters have avoided sectarianism, the Assads have not, which may have ominous implications for the future. Syria's vulnerability to outside interference, which the Assads have emphasised in denouncing alleged outside plots, may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as suppressed, angry border communities seek assistance from their brethren in neighbouring countries.

In some western capitals, particularly Washington, there is hope that a weakened Assad regime will be more amenable to outside pressures. The reasoning is that Mr al Assad, in order to regain international respectability, will show greater willingness to resume negotiations with Israel, break with Iran, interfere less on the Palestinian track and cut back Syrian military aid to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

In fact, Mr al Assad is probably to react in precisely the contrary way. The last thing he will do after ordering his army and security forces to gun down hundreds of civilians is to undermine his credibility further by negotiating with Israel. And why would he distance himself from Iran and Hizbollah, isolating himself further regionally and surrendering the "resistance" card, when the Iranians may be helping to save him? A Mr al Assad triumphant at home will have no incentive whatsoever to follow an optimistic script written in the United States or Europe.

All this will not alter the reality that Mr al Assad's options are limited. He cannot change Syria for the better, so he has to press on in the expectation that he can overcome through violence the malcontents in his own society. But violence can only possibly breed further discontent. Something is broken in Syria. The regime is predicting victory, but victory against one's own people is invariably pyrrhic.

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