Assad Defies the Odds

Has the regime won the stalemate?

Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad is the first Arab leader not to succumb to the Arab revolution that has brought down the (dictators) leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.  Assad has withstood his Sunni-Arab opposition for two years now, albeit with reduced control over the country.  That in itself signifies a meaningful victory for the Assad regime and the axis of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah, as well as Russia.  The big losers are the U.S., the Arab Gulf states (particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia), Turkey, and Israel.

It is apparent that the Syrian opposition has been unable to defeat and expel the Assad regime, and it would be futile to predict when and if that will occur. In a defiant interview with London’s Sunday Times (March 3, 2013), Bashar Assad declared he is willing to negotiate with the opposition but would not step down.  He added that he would only talk with rebels who laid down their arms, making a distinction between the “political entities” he would engage with and “armed terrorists.”

Assad seemed determined to continue ruling over his torn country, where over 70,000 of his fellow countrymen have been killed, largely by his own regime.  He did not seem to be apologetic, nor did he indicate his willingness to compromise.  As far as he was concerned, “outsiders” are at work seeking to break up Syria, the cradle of Arab nationalism, and he, as Syria’s leader, will not allow it.

According to Abdelbari Atwan, writing for the Arabs Today website (February 14, 2013) Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and Assad’s personal representative, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, will both be visiting Moscow in late February or early March 2013.  The question Atwan asked was “will they meet?”  The actual announcement of the visit to Moscow by both Muallem and al-Khatib was made by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.

The opposition leaders admit that they are unable to capture Damascus, take over central Aleppo, or get ahold of Assad’s chemical weapon depots.  Nor has the rebel Free Syrian Army been able to take control of the large Syrian air bases.  This is the ostensible reason for the Syrian opposition's willingness to confer with the Russians and most likely with Muallem.  The talks in Moscow, should they come to fruition, will center on the proposal for a cease fire and Assad’s promise to hold elections when his term of office ends next year.  Until then, the opposition must acknowledge Bashar Assad as Syria’s president and Commander-in-Chief of Syria’s armed forces.

The opposition appears to be embittered by what it considers Western betrayal: American and Western failure to provide weapons to the rebels or commit to military intervention as the West did in Libya.  This is apparently why al-Khatib is willing to turn to Russia.  Atwan explained it thus: “It's clear that both [Assad] regime and opposition camps have arrived at some kind of conviction that the current stalemate rules out a decisive military result, which means looking at other solutions.  Moscow might be the best, or at least the most preferred camp for this.”

This brings us to the second victor in the Syrian conflict, President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin sought to prevent the U.S. and its NATO allies from toppling Assad, and at the moment he has succeeded.  Iran too, is a big winner by virtue of maintaining and perhaps expending the Shiite Arc from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, and the strategic benefits it will derive.  And, as long as Assad rules in Damascus, Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, will be the strongman in Beirut.

Of the primary losers in the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration is surely one of them.  Obama’s support for what his administration termed as the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and their affiliates in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as a wedge against the more radical Islamists such as al-Qaeda, was exposed as a failure.  In Egypt, the MB-led government is as dictatorial as the Mubarak regime, without the stability that Mubarak provided.  The fall of the pro-Western regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, with Obama’s support, did not produce a democratic and liberal Arab Spring.  It did, instead, foster increased anti-Western and anti-American radicalism.  In Syria, the opposition forces are increasingly dominated by jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida offshoot.

The Arab Gulf states and especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also significant losers.  Their massive financial and military support given to the Sunni rebels in Syria did not succeed in offsetting the Iranian support for Assad in personnel, arms, and cash, or for that matter, unseat Assad and his Alawi clan.  Iran, in spite of international sanctions, has been able to sustain the Assad regime.  According to the Economy Watch (January 17, 2013), “The export Development Bank of Iran as such will provide the Commercial Bank of Syria with $1 billion import credit line, allowing (Assad’s) Syria to source for consumer supplies from Iran at a time when it is hard for them to do so from many other countries.”

Turkey, another big loser, has played all its cards against Assad’s Syria at the cost of straining its relations with its other neighbors, Iran and Iraq.  In the Muslim world moreover, many view Ankara as having aligned itself with the oppressive regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as serving the interests of “imperialism and Zionism.”  Ankara’s policy in the Syrian conflict, according to many in the Muslim world, does not advance the interests of Turkey or the cause of the Muslim Ummah.  Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist Turkish Prime Minister, will now have to live under the shadow of Bashar Assad in Damascus.

Israel is the fourth loser in the Syrian conflict.  Jerusalem failed to break the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah (and to a lesser extent Hamas) axis in spite of the wars it waged against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2009 and late 2012.  Most importantly, the Syrian civil war did not sever the Assad-Iran relationship.  Iran’s influence in the region seems to be increasing as is Tehran’s nuclear threat.  The only silver lining for Israel may be found in the prospect of a Kurdish state in north-eastern Syria.

While relatively moderate pro-Western Arab regimes fell like dominoes in the winter and spring of 2011, Bashar Assad of Syria, the one anti-Western regime allied with Iran, the West’s most dangerous foe, has defied the odds.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.