Thursday, November 17, 2011

Assad's regime crumbles one frayed relationship at a time

With the Arab League voting to suspend Syria's membership the late Syrian president, Hafez Al Assad, must be spinning in his grave. In recent years his son Bashar has managed to squander almost everything he inherited when Hafez died in 2000, steadily undermining the multiple pillars bolstering the Assad regime.

In fairness, the late president didn't leave behind a political system particularly adept at responding with flexibility to challenges. What Hafez Al Assad built was a monumental engine of stalemate, designed to stifle all aspirations for change and to safeguard Assad domination. Bashar has struggled with this unwieldy apparatus to contain the uprising against his authority. Given his overpowering dependency on violence, perhaps not surprisingly he has failed to do so.

The Assad order, in place since 1970, has granted the president myriad instruments of repression, but also of patronage. Though the regime is led by an Alawite elite, the late Al Assad played down this reality to avoid being delegitimised by Syria's - and the Arab world's - Sunni majority. He did so by exploiting an inherent sense of Arabism among Syrians and accentuating his regime's Arab nationalist credentials. The Baath Party was made to play a vanguard role in political life while serving as a prime lever of Assad power.

Even when the party began losing credibility, the regime presented enduring nationalist bona fides, above all implacable opposition to Israel and frequent opposition to American policy in the Middle East. At the same time, until 2005, Syria controlled Lebanon, which gave the Assads substantial regional leverage. When Hizbollah fought Israel the outcomes were negotiated in Damascus. The Syrian regime gained politically without risking confronting the Israelis directly.

At home, Hafez Al Assad co-opted the Sunni community. He created favourable conditions for the Sunni business class, which proved essential to defending his regime, particularly in Damascus, when it was challenged by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. In turn, the Baath party was used as a conduit of patronage and services to poorer Syrian areas, including Sunni rural areas hitherto backbones of the regime. The party's marginalisation at the hands of the ruling family could be one reason why a pro-regime district such as Deraa revolted.

Over and above this, the elder Assad carefully fashioned a regional Arab consensus on Syria, further anchoring his leadership despite its minority status. He maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia, until Camp David stood with Egypt at the forefront of the conflict with Israel, and won Arab approval for Syrian dominion in Lebanon. Al Assad also imposed himself as a primary interlocutor of the United States, the Europeans, and until the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union.

The president positioned Syria at the nexus point of regional interests. He was never quite able to dominate the Palestinians but Al Assad retained a spoiler role in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

Bashar Al Assad replicated the general lines of his father's strategy. He stuck to Arab nationalist tropes, propped up the enemies of Israel and the United States, and in more recent years sought to destabilise Syria's neighbours - Iraq and Lebanon, but also the Palestinian territories through Hamas - to reinforce Syria's bargaining position when outsiders came looking for solutions. And even though the Assad family expanded their stake in the Syrian economy, often through intimidation, the Sunni business class did not challenge them.

The first true sign that Bashar Al Assad was less gifted than his father came in 2005 in Lebanon. Following the assassination of former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, which was blamed on Syria and its local allies, Mr Al Assad withdrew his army from the country. But he also angered Lebanon's Sunnis by eliminating their champion. This is coming back to haunt the president as most Lebanese Sunnis are backing their rebellious coreligionists across the Syrian border.

To compensate, the younger Al Assad strengthened ties with Iran, exacerbating his relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis later reversed themselves and sought a reconciliation with Damascus. However, they have also remained very ambiguous during the Syrian revolt, in part because there are those in the kingdom who must realise that Mr Al Assad's fall would be a blow to Tehran.

More damaging still, the president has alienated countries once friendliest to his rule. Where Hafez Al Assad avoided a clash with Turkey, his son has presided over the collapse of the relationship with Ankara. Similarly, Qatar previously provided the Assad regime with valuable political assistance; today the emirate's leadership is taking the lead in advocating Arab league measures against Syria.

Mr Al Assad has shattered the Arab and regional consensus behind his regime, instead managing to produce one opposed to the regime. Even King Abdullah of Jordan has advised the president to step down.

The vicious sectarian behaviour of Syria's army and security forces has only reaffirmed the Alawite core of Assad rule. And the Sunni business class, which thrives on stability, knows that Mr Al Assad's continuation in office will mean more instability.

All that Mr Al Assad has left is the solidarity of his fearful Alawite acolytes. They will pursue the massacre to avoid what they believe will be their own if they are defeated. Iran and Hizbollah are on hand to help, but they cannot reverse Arab discontent or pacify the streets of Syria. The sordid Assad interregnum is coming to an end, bullet by bullet. We must hope that Syria avoids all-out civil war.

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