Bashar al-Assad is the master of delay, delusion, and self-deception, as the isolation of his regime increases
guardian.co.uk, Monday 31 October 2011 21.01 GMT
Eight months on, the uprising in Syria has changed. There is now a Free Syrian Army in Turkey claiming it has battalions across Syria. One such is the Khalid bin Walid battalion in Homs, a unit of several hundred army officers and soldiers who defected and now shoot back when demonstrations are fired on, ambush troop convoys, and kill regime informers. Protesters gathering in Homs and Hama, the frontline of the anti-regime protests – the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 40% of the people killed in the uprising came from Homs – are now calling on Nato to establish a no-fly zone over Syria. Week by week, the land is descending into civil war.
There are few signs, however, that Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad has changed. Like his fellow dictators in their final days, he is a man in denial. As 40 died at the hands of his security forces in the last few days, and Homs came under sustained assault, Assad talked in his interview with the Sunday Telegraph of a turning tide of support for the government, where the army were only targeting terrorists. In the past, an Assad speech promising reform or an interview saying he was ready to talk to the opposition was a sure prelude to yet another violent crackdown. This interview could turn out to be no different. He is the master of delay, delusion, and self-deception, as the isolation of his regime increases. Former allies peel away – first Turkey, then Saudi Arabia, and now the Arab League. But Assad was right on one point – if his regime fell the whole region would change. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Assad’s Baáthist regime stands at the crossroads of a complex network of alliances.
If the regime fell, it would affect more than the resistance network of Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas’s external leadership is already preparing its move from Damascus, after it incurred the wrath of its hosts by failing to condemn the uprising, and will probably move to Turkey, Jordan and Qatar. Hezbollah, which unequivocally supported the Syrian leadership, would lose a vital lifeline of military support from Iran. But beyond them, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran would all be shaken to the core if the majority Sunnis in Syria returned to the ascendancy. In Iraq there are already signs of the Sunnis demanding Kurdish-style autonomy from the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. If it lost Syria, Iran would lose the central plank of its regional power, and its regime, which has posed as the great defender of the Shia, would once again become vulnerable to internal revolt. The 10 Afghanistans that Assad promised would greet the arrival of a western intervention in Syria is an exaggeration, but the change happening in the Arab world, which has never in his history had nation states, is profound enough.
Nato is not, happily, contemplating another intervention. As we are all now witnessing in Libya, a no-fly zone does not protect civilian lives – estimates of the dead over the past eight months range from 10,000 to 50,000. Nor is its aim to force dictators to negotiate. As UN mandates have been interpreted by the leading military powers of Nato, no-fly zones are a cover for regime change. Assad knows he is next and he will play every card, especially the sectarian one, to delay what must surely now be the inevitable. The uprising is at a critical stage. Syria’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have stayed loyal to the regime, and Assad is for the moment confident he has weathered the worst. But the damage done by the savage repression elsewhere is irreversible. The economic sanctions have yet to bite. Not enough army officers and soldiers have defected to make a difference.
There may be no alternative to civil war, but if there is, it will not be through intervention. It can only be achieved when Assad sees that he is finished, and that his only hope of survival is to agree to a transitional government and free elections.
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