Syrian President Bashar al Assad, during a nationally televised speech Tuesday, conveyed a lack of interest in any peaceful settlement to the uprising that began in his country in March 2011. Rather than pledging concessions to the opposition, as he has done in speeches past, al Assad vowed to use an “iron fist” to put down the rebellion. He labeled anti-regime protesters as traitors and terrorists taking part in a global conspiracy against his rule, and especially derided the actions of the Arab states that are voicing rising criticism of the methods he has used to counter the uprising. Both sides have become more violent in recent months, and as the protests drag on, al Assad is becoming less willing to compromise.
Al Assad said the current threat is the most dire the country has faced since the Islamist uprising his father Hafez put down in the 1980s. His reference to this period in Syrian history was likely meant to deliver an implicit warning that he, too, is willing to use as much force as necessary to suppress the new rebellion. The events of last year’s so-called Arab Spring may have led to the overthrow of al Assad’s counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, but they failed to dislodge the Alawite regime in Syria. And after a 10-month uprising, al Assad intends to take all measures within his means to stay in power.
There is a widely held notion in many foreign capitals and newsrooms that al Assad is barely holding on to power. However, there is still no clear indication that he is failing to maintain any of the regime’s four pillars of power: Alawite unity, the supremacy of the Ba’ath Party, the supremacy of the al Assad clan and Alawite control over the military-intelligence apparatus. Al Assad certainly finds himself in an uncomfortable position, but regime change is not the inevitable outcome.
Without NATO military intervention in Libya, Moammar Gadhafi could still be ruling a smaller version of the country. Just as foreign military intervention ultimately proved Gadhafi’s undoing, in Syria such a scenario represents the most significant potential threat to al Assad’s position. He is thus fortunate to rule a country that is strategically located. Bombing Libya had minimal strategic consequences for most of the Western powers who carried out the campaign; Syria presents greater risks. The international community’s hesitance to create instability on the borders of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan make it unlikely Syria will receive the same treatment Libya did.
Turkey has repeatedly been mentioned as a country that could conduct military options against the Alawite regime, but Ankara’s actions in recent months have shown that it is reluctant for a war with Syria. At most, the Turks may try to create a buffer zone along the border – without pushing into Damascus – but even that no longer seems likely. Breaking Syria apart would exacerbate problems with Turkey’s Kurdish population, which always conditions Ankara’s actions regarding Syria (and Iraq).
The dispatch of an Arab League monitoring team Dec. 26 was meant to reduce violence in Syria, if only temporarily. Instead, violence has actually increased: a U.N. official said Tuesday that an average of 40 people per day have been killed since the monitors’ arrival. Al Assad in his speech accused certain Arab states of hypocrisy for their statements on what he should do to placate the protesters, and showed that an “in house” Arab solution to the problem is not at hand.
Israel is in the meantime using psychological warfare and propaganda in its attempts to affect al Assad’s undoing. It calculates that a Sunni regime hostile to Israel is preferable to an Iranian ally serving as a key link in a Shiite arc stretching to Lebanon. Still, Israel is unable to do much to affect events within Syria.
Should al Assad’s regime survive, the biggest regional winner will be Iran. Syria’s already close alliance with Tehran will be strengthened should the regime persevere.