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>> The International Herald Tribune


The International Herald Tribune - September 1, 2011

by Rami G. Khouri

The signs are not good for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the tightly knit network of relatives, security agencies, Baath Party members and business associates that dominates the country.

The regime is increasingly isolated at home and abroad, but remains bunkered down and ready to fight to the end. The exact nature of that end game is not clear, but seems imminent now, especially in view of just the past week’s events. The most telling:

The Iranian foreign minister publicly said that the Assad regime should respond to the legitimate political grievances of the citizens, meaning that the current military crackdown is not sufficient to calm things down and maintain regime incumbency. The Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, also spoke out on the need for all parties to work together to resolve the tensions in Syria peacefully.

When Syria’s two closest allies in the world — Iran and Hezbollah — publicly acknowledge that the problems in Syria are deep and cannot be resolved by current hard security measures, this is a signal that Syria is in deep trouble.

Also in the region, Turkey continued to pressure the Assad government, and went so far as to say that if it is forced to choose between supporting the leaders or the people of Syria, it would support the people.

Even the Arab League — that old flat tire of Arab legitimacy and collective action — spoke out about the dangers of the current Syrian government strategy and sent its secretary general to Damascus to propose a plan to resolve the conflict.

The Europeans, meanwhile, moved closer to imposing a full embargo on trading in Syrian oil and energy products, while the United States and the U.N. Security Council continued to seek new ways to pressure Syria.

Especially frightening for Assad was the U.N. Human Rights Council’s study of whether the state’s response to the citizen revolt has included acts that can be classified as crimes against humanity — meaning that the Assad regime could be inching slowly toward indictment by the International Criminal Court.

Most significant were three moves by Syrians themselves. Assorted opposition groups that met in Turkey announced the formation of a national transitional council; some militant groups in Syria said they would seek arms in order to resist the state militarily; and other groups in Syria asked the international community for protection from the military retributions of the Assad regime.

These were all small, isolated steps that did not yet amount to a defining cascade, but when combined with the regional and international moves, they clearly showed the Syrian government and wider ruling apparatus slowly being encircled by concentric circles of domestic, regional and international pressure.

Many, including me, have argued for months that the Syrian government is strong in its immediate moorings and support bases, and enjoys legitimacy among many Syrians.

The problem that Assad and his system now face is that he has wasted much of that support and legitimacy, and is now “strong” in a very different and much more vulnerable manner.

The Syrian regime is strong now in the same way that a company of soldiers is strong when grouped together in a fortified camp that is totally encircled by hostile forces. The regime still has decisive leaders, many security services, a core political/demographic base of support at home, plenty of tanks and ammunition, billions of dollars of money, and tens of thousands of foot soldiers.

All these assets, however, are bunched into an increasingly smaller and smaller space, with fewer and fewer regional or international connections, and are confronting mass popular rallies that steadily grow in frequency, size, bravado and political intensity. Using battlefield tanks to kill your own civilians is not a sign of strength, but of savagery born of desperation.

The Syrian regime’s attempt to resolve the crisis through a combination of hard security and soft political reform dialogue has totally failed, and has only aggravated the three most critical dynamics that will define its future: its declining legitimacy and credibility with many of its own people; the rising intensity of the open challenge to it from Syrians at home and abroad; and the diplomatic pressures applied by regional and global powers.

Syria is likely — and able — to persist in this mode for months. If the regime could break away from the forces that now pen it in, it might have a chance to orchestrate a gradual change to a more open and liberal system of governance. But the likelihood of that happening is now zero.

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