Thursday, July 11, 2013

Assad’s narrative is making headway

If it is proven that the explosion in Bir al-Abed Tuesday was caused by the Syrian enemies of President Bashar Assad, then Lebanon could be in for a very difficult time. But what is more disturbing is that such attacks only reinforce Assad’s narrative that his regime is the last line of defense against Salafist jihadists, who are destabilizing the countries around Syria.

Assad did everything to bring about precisely this violent outcome; and had his Hezbollah allies not intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict, it is unlikely that we would have seen car bombs in Lebanon. But as we assess the balance of forces, the Syrian regime and its backers have gained the upper hand, while the Syrian opposition is now viewed with uneasiness because of its association with the jihadists.

Observers warned of this two years ago, when the Americans and Europeans were fiddling over what to do in Syria. They still are and the vacuum they helped perpetuate only facilitated the emergence of jihadist groups that Western governments had feared bolstering.

At the same time, the lack of credibility of the opposition in exile and the fact that armed opposition groups inside Syria remain divided thanks to political rivalries between their foreign sponsors has handed Assad a decisive advantage. The Syrian army has been rearmed and reorganized under the supervision of Russia and Iran, who early on decreed that Assad’s survival was a strategic objective.

In contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama has embraced the politics of evasion, while France and the United Kingdom have produced much sound and fury signifying nothing on Syria. Obama has subcontracted Syria to America’s regional allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have become a major part of the problem there. The mishmash of clashing interests and priorities among Assad’s foreign adversaries has allowed the Syrian regime to reverse the tide, with no sign that Arab states and the West are any closer to an integrated strategy for removing Assad and controlling the aftermath.

Even if Assad makes decisive military gains, Syria will nevertheless remain unstable for a long time as rebels resort to guerilla warfare. The jihadists will surely contribute to this rearguard action, perhaps by planting more car bombs. Yet all this will do is strengthen Assad further, as he portrays himself as the purveyor of tranquility. And the Syrian people, exhausted and bloodied, many of whom have no desire to remain refugees forever, may agree. Though they may detest Assad, two years of war has only brought them ruin, but also little to enhance their faith in the governing capacity of the opposition.

And now, if the opposition begins destabilizing Lebanon, all this will do is alienate Lebanese who are unwilling to see their country descend into war because of Syria. Hezbollah’s forays into Syria are more acceptable to many of them, because the impact is felt elsewhere. But if Assad’s foes seek to undermine Lebanese security, this will further turn the national mood against the rebels, making the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon even grimmer than they already are.

In light of this it may be useful for Lebanese Sunni representatives to issue a joint statement, under the sponsorship of Dar al-Fatwa, telling the armed Syrian opposition that the community rejects efforts to exacerbate sectarian relations in Lebanon and target the Shiite community, regardless of what Hezbollah is doing. This may have no impact, but it will allow Sunni representatives to distance their community from future violent acts justified in its name.

The shifting alignment of regional forces has played in Assad’s favor. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced challenges to his rule, reflecting a secular-religious rift in Turkish society that will not be easily repaired. Moreover, this rift defines Erdogan’s differences with the armed forces, a bastion of secularism in the Kemalist state. The prime minister must also contend with a lack of support for his stance on Syria in southern Anatolia, where the population sympathizes with the fate of the Alawites next door.

In Qatar, the emir has stepped down and handed over power to his son. While this may not mean far-reaching changes in Qatari policies in the near term, the process led to the removal of Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani, the person most closely associated with the emirate’s approach to Syria. It is conceivable that Syria could become less of a priority for Qatar as the new monarch, Emir Tammim bin Hamad, focuses on consolidating his rule domestically.

In Egypt, the removal of President Mohammad Mursi has allowed Assad not only to cheer the downfall of an adversary, but also to revive the narrative that Islamists in the Arab world are on the run and that he, Assad, best embodies a secular alternative. This account may seem laughable when Assad heads a deeply sectarian regime and once assisted jihadists making their way to Iraq, but it is surprisingly effective in a region increasingly mistrustful of Islamists in power.

And Jordan, though no great friend of Assad, worries that militant Islamists will triumph in Syria and inspire Jordanian Islamists. Now that King Abdullah has secured American military protection, he finds it easier to limit aid to the Syrian rebels, while their reversals around Damascus have made a rebel offensive launched from the south, which would implicate the kingdom, less probable than ever.

While some might argue that the Syrian opposition had little choice but to accept the assistance of jihadists against Assad, because no one else was helping them, this association is proving fatal. For their own sake, Assad’s opponents have to break this link, and the Arab states must help them. Assad understandably feels confident today as his adversaries, near and far, make one error after the other.

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