Friday, May 27, 2011

The Assads or Bust

The Assad regime has lost all legitimacy, and yet there is still a refusal in most capitals to demand that the Syrian president step down. Such dallying buys his army and security forces more time to proceed with their plan of eradication. That may be the aim, at least among Arab officials, who fear that if Mr. Assad goes, other rulers will soon follow.

Such an approach is utterly short sighted. The governing family in Syria—the Assads and their Makhlouf cousin—has failed to gain the upper hand against protestors. The Syrian economy is suffering and the still-uncommitted urban business community is losing confidence in the regime’s ability to reimpose normality. Despite a shocking use of terror tactics (including firing live ammunition at unarmed marchers and deploying tanks against towns and villages), Syrians are displaying unimaginable bravery in continuing to mobilize in favor of liberty.

In this context, for the international community—and the Arab states in particular—to do nothing means ignoring the potentially severe regional ramifications of a breakdown in Syria. Here's why: the Assad-Makhlouf clan has intentionally played up sectarian tensions between its own Alawite minority and the Sunni majority. Their aim is to create circumstances so explosive as to reinforce the view abroad that it must be either the Assads at the helm or chaos.

But the reality is that the Assads are engendering chaos, and it may conceivably transform itself into virulent sectarian chaos if things are allowed to deteriorate further. Already, Sunni inhabitants of mixed villages who have fled to Lebanon report that they were expelled by Alawites. Some diplomats in Beirut are calling this a case of ethnic cleansing, with the possible aim of establishing an Alawite mini-state in Syria¹s northwestern coastal and mountain areas.

This perilous game hardly bodes well for the mixed societies neighboring Syria, in Lebanon and Iraq. In both countries relations between Sunnis and Shiites have worsened in recent years, and a Syrian regime that exacerbates its own society¹s centrifugal sectarian forces risks doing so elsewhere. There is Sunni anger in northern Lebanon with what the Alawite leadership is doing. Iraqi Sunni communities also maintain ties with their Syrian brethren, and may have an incentive, given their perceived marginalization at home, to assist them.

That is why the Arab preference—and that of the international community—to remain minimalist on Syria because of the complexity of the situation means effectively ignoring that regional destabilization may be the outcome.

If there are any doubts, consider what Mr. Assad’s powerful cousin and the financial pillar of his regime, Rami Makhlouf, told The New York Times recently: “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” Mr. Makhlouf warned, before adding: “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

Several sources confirm that, off the record, Mr. Makhlouf also issued a more direct threat against United Nations contingents in southern Lebanon, many of whom are European. Indeed, on May 27 there was a bomb attack against an Italian convoy near Sidon, injuring several soldiers. In this way Makhlouf was merely reiterating the timeless strategy of the Assad regime, namely that to ensure its own survival it will readily export instability, compelling outsiders to knock at its door to negotiate solutions.

All these reasons—the prospect that heightened sectarianism provoked by the Assad-Makhlouf circle may spread beyond Syria¹s borders, the distinct possibility that Mr. Assad and his acolytes will destabilize their political environment to stay in office, and the fact that the Syrian regime is unwilling to (and incapable of) reform—call for much more political boldness than we’ve seen from the international community and the Arab states in particular.

It’s ironical that if the Arab states were to intervene with a diplomatic initiative to help resolve the Syrian crisis, they would first require a push from the United States. But for the Obama administration to abandon its lethargy, it would need to see evidence of Arab concern that what is going on in Syria endangers the Middle East.

This impasse tells us much about the reluctance in the Arab world, and also in Washington, to tackle Syria’s undeniably difficult predicament. In part, this is a consequence, on the Arab side, of a traditional refusal of governments to challenge state sovereignty; on the American side, of a fear of overstretch given Washington¹s other regional entanglements. But steering clear of the uprising against President Assad—when conditions are deteriorating and their negative impact on Syria’s surroundings is bound to intensify—is either disgracefully callous or foolishly naive.

Because of the increasing viciousness of the Assad regime’s crackdown on demonstrations, the U.S. administration, followed by the European Union, has imposed sanctions on the Syrian president. President Barack Obama declared that Mr. Assad “has a choice: He can lead [a transition to democracy, or get out of the way.” But an individual who has presided over the violent repression of his own population—including the killing of over 1,100 people, according to Syrian activists, and the arrest of several thousand more—is not likely to lead a transition toward a more open system. Mr. Obama knows this, as do the Arab leaders.

But don’t expect much to imminently change. The wave of Arab revolts has overloaded decision makers everywhere, challenging their default attitudes. Syria is passing through a period of historic transmutation, which will reshape the Middle East in decisive ways. However, both Arab leaders and American officials are waiting for the other side to budge because no one wants to do so first. For the Syrian people, this poverty of low expectations is proving fatal. Soon, they may not be alone.

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