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Bashar Assad: A Second Hama?

 31 March 2011

by Yisrael Ne'eman

Syrian President Bashar Assad cannot compromise. This is clear from yesterday's speech to Parliament and even more so from the overall socio-political situation in Syria. Assad and those in power look around the Arab/Muslim world very carefully, absorbing two major lessons - being conciliatory and promising concessions will only lead to more demands and increase public pressure on the regime to give in further. On the other hand, swift focused repression of discontent leaves one with the best chance of remaining in power.

He backs up the analysis with examples. Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly while Qaddafi in Libya is still holding on despite Western intervention. In Bahrain the rebellion is over thanks to Saudi and Arab Emirate intervention on the side of the king and his ruling Sunni elite. Another lesson learned concerns the West. When Europe and the US can afford to allow one of its dictatorial secular allies to fall in the name of "democracy," they will step aside. In such cases the West fears being caught on the wrong side of a people's revolt. If one is expendable and has a terrible track record due to human rights abuses and previous support for terrorism, such as in the Libyan example, Europe and the US will even join the rebels "proving" their loyalty to rule by the people. If one is not expendable, such as in the Bahraini example, the West and the US in particular will allow its non-democratic allies to intervene to ensure the "correct outcome", the continued existence of the regime – regardless of oppression or human rights abuses. Stability of Persian Gulf oil supplies can trump all.

Syria is a fragmented society made up of the ruling Alawite minority, Druze, Kurds, Christians and the Sunni majority, the latter split between supporters of and partners in the secular Ba'ath regime and the opposition radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood advocates. Sitting in the presidential palace in Damascus, Assad only need look eastwards to Baghdad to understand his predicament. Saddam Hussein, a student of Stalin, understood that holding together a multi-ethnic/religious artificial state can only be done through repression and the negation of human rights. The minute Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and individual tribes will all have their "rights" at the "expense" of a unified Iraq all will collapse. Saddam weathered the eight year war with Iran (1980-88) and the first American led Allied/Arab invasion after his Kuwait adventure (1990-91) and only fell when he was physically swept from power in 2003. Otherwise he put down all uprisings. Qaddafi understood the same and the only reason he may lose Libya is due to the same Western intervention.

Assad understands that both Saddam and Qaddafi made one crucial mistake of omission. Neither had a powerful ally whose fate was inextricably linked to their own. The Russians and Chinese may not be happy with Western intervention but they always understood that they would survive the outcome. Not so Ahmedinejad and the Iranians. Syria is a major piece in their Middle Eastern puzzle and Assad knows it. Anti-regime demos in Iran are brutally repressed while the Western cacophony makes unlimited noises but none would dare intervene. Developing their nuclear program and threatening to rocket fair portions of the Middle East should they be disturbed by outside forces the Khomeinist leadership in Iran rests assured that a brutal crackdown ensures their continued survival – just witness the "elections" of June 2009 and the aftermath. Bashar is fully aware of the massacre in Hama ordered by his father Hafez al-Assad in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood threatened his Ba'ath regime. Some 20,000 were killed (although this writer has heard of deaths reaching 38,000 from students who studied in Syria in the 1990s) and if need be Bashar can consider "Hama Two" in whatever geographical location is necessary.

Bashar's take on the present instability is as follows: Thank God the Americans and West are not your allies and the Iranians and Hezbollah stand beside you. Western intervention can be ruled out and you can take whatever repressive action deemed necessary. One should also be grateful there is no real dilemma. Reforms and democracy could lead to the shattering of the Syrian State and worse yet the massacre of one's own Alawite minority. One is reminded of Mikhael Gorbochev's reforms in the late 1980s, the fall of Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Furthermore the Americans are bogged down in Afghanistan, are attempting to leave Iraq (but who knows?) and are engaging in Libya. Obama needs intervention in Syria like he needs a Republican Senate. Best yet is the question of who will replace Assad and his Ba'ath regime – the Muslim Brotherhood or some form of anarchy are the two immediate answers. For the West the present Syrian regime is the best of all evils, there is no real reason to intervene. Even should it damage Iranian/Hezbollah interests, the longer term effects could prove more of a loss than a gain.

The Israeli understanding is similar, Assad being a pillar of stability despite his Iranian and Hezbollah connections. The Ba'ath is a much better option than anarchy. The only other more positive possibility is the breakdown of Syria into smaller but stable entities, but this is a long shot. With Hamas losing control in Gaza and Hezbollah controlling south Lebanon, Israel does not need instability on the Golan front and it needs the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria least of all.

Strange as it may sound the West and Israel are hopeful Bashar Assad and his Ba'ath dictatorship will remain in power.