Thursday, September 20, 2012

Assad thinks he can survive by confusing his neighbours

At a conference recently in Beirut, a Syrian analyst once close to the regime of President Bashar Al Assad said something interesting about the current thinking in Damascus. He argued that Mr Al Assad and his entourage believed they were winning the conflict in Syria, because they had managed to hold on for this long and still enjoyed the support of countries such as Iran, Russia and China.

If that assessment is correct, then what we are witnessing today in the Syrian authorities' disruption of countries surrounding Syria should be familiar. Whenever the Assads have felt threatened, they have destabilised the neighbourhood to survive politically.

However, this also tells us something disturbing about the strategy of countries opposed to Al Assad rule. The United States, but also Turkey and even the Saudi and Qatari governments, have been treading relatively softly on Syria, fearing that by allowing the opposition to acquire more sophisticated weaponry they might only make the situation on the ground worse.

That may be true, but all this is doing is giving more confidence to Mr Al Assad, who in a meeting last weekend with the UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, again displayed no signs of compromise. Instead, his regime has hit out in various directions, above all against Turkey and Lebanon, in a bid to show that its fall could set the region afire. That undermines the premise that a softer approach reduces instability. In fact, it heightens the instability.

This reality extends to Iraq, where the sectarian and ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict is having repercussions all of its own. In recent weeks the country has been wracked by bomb attacks, probably the work of Sunni militants. Meanwhile, the country's Sunni vice president, Tareq Al Hashemi, was sentenced to death by a judiciary under the thumb of the Shia prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki.

Relations between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish areas are also at their lowest since the American invasion of 2003. The Iraqi Kurds are playing a major role in shaping the choices of Syrian Kurds, who have widespread control over a swathe of territory in north-eastern Syria. The delicate balancing act in Iraq will necessarily be shaken by outcomes in Syria, and the country's capacity to avert the worst-case scenarios have not been helped by Mr Al Maliki's divisive policies.

On the other hand in Lebanon, long considered the weakest link bordering Syria, there has been an encouraging transformation in the political mood lately. A former pro-Syrian minister, Michel Samaha, was arrested on August 9 for planning bomb attacks in northern Lebanon, the aim of which was to provoke sectarian discord. The evidence shows that Mr Samaha coordinated his efforts with General Ali Mamluk, a senior Syrian intelligence official.

This episode was a wake-up call for Lebanese officials, President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati in particular. Both men have sought to navigate a neutral path over Syria during the past year and to maintain friendly ties with the Assad regime. However, the Syrians were never truly satisfied with this, believing that those Lebanese not with Mr Al Assad were against him, regardless of how such partiality might have harmed Lebanese unity.

The Samaha plot, Syrian involvement in provoking clashes in the northern city of Tripoli, as well as continuing cross-border violations of Lebanese territory by Syria's armed forces, brought home to Mr Suleiman and Mr Mikati that Syria's leadership was manipulating Lebanese insecurity to protect itself. No one in Lebanon, including Hizbollah, wants to be dragged into a civil war on Mr Al Assad's behalf. Which is why the president and prime minister have been able to take increasingly independent positions vis-à-vis Damascus.

In Turkey the situation is more complicated. The de facto self-rule of Syria's Kurds has understandably alarmed the Erdogan government, which fears that this will encourage Turkey's own Kurdish population to demand autonomy, or more. However, there is a fresh worry as well, namely that there are many Turks located near Syrian territory who, for ethnic or religious reasons, sympathise more with Mr Al Assad than with the opposition.

That is why the Turkish authorities have started requiring that Syrians who have sought shelter in Turkish border districts either move further inland or relocate to refugee camps, where they can be better controlled. Despite expectations that Ankara would play a significant role in helping to overthrow Mr Al Assad, the fact is that Turkey's myriad vulnerabilities have been further exposed.

Indeed, the Turks, with American encouragement, have by most accounts restricted weapons flows to the Free Syrian Army. Such actions have angered the Syrian opposition without greatly advancing Turkish objectives. Ankara has irked both sides in Syria, long ago lost its ability to act as mediator, and yet appears to be hesitating to accelerate Mr Al Assad's demise in a decisive way.

To a large extent the problem is the absence of a clear strategy on Syria on the part of Mr Al Assad's foes. Whereas Iran, Russia and China all grasp that an advantageous Syrian transition for them requires that Syria's president survive politically, at least for now, the western countries, Turkey and the Arab states are pursuing contradictory goals. The Syrian regime has exacerbated their fears by showing that if it were to go, chaos would ensue in the Levant.

Mr Al Assad will pursue his border wars, with various levels of success. This may bring diminishing returns, even one day accelerate the regime's collapse. But for now Syria's leadership sees confusion among its enemies, giving it room to cause more major headaches.

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