WILL Bashar Assad still be president of Syria in 2012? As foreign ministers (minus Syria’s Walid al-Muallim) of the 22-nation Arab League meet today in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, the odds are surely lengthening against him. The League has historically been a pretty toothless and fissiparous organisation—hence the surprise when in March it backed a UN resolution to authorising air attacks on Libya to protect civilians from Colonel Qaddafi’s forces (proof of how Qaddafi had alienated virtually all his fellow Arab leaders). But now the League is suspending Syria in protest at Bashar’s use of murderous military force against his opponents.
Do not, however, expect any outside intervention other than increasing economic sanctions. The fact is that Syria, strategically placed in the Middle East with Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq as its neighbours, is too complex a country for outsiders to risk involvement. As Bashar is keen to emphasise, if his regime falls, Syria—with its various ethnic and religious components (the Assads are part of the Alawiteminority in a largely Sunni nation)—could collapse into the kind of sectarian civil war that tormented Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. As a resident of Beirut during part of that period, I would hate to see such an outcome in Syria.
The trouble is, the regime’s reflex has always been to be repressive. At one level this means having mukhabarat—the secret police—everywhere. At another it means cracking down with extraordinary ruthlessness, as Bashar’s father, Hafez, did in 1982 when the military, commanded by Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat, quelled a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood revolt in the town of Hama. According to conservative estimates, at least 10,000 of Hama’s residents were killed.
But the “Arab spring”, whatever its troubled weather, should have shown to Bashar and his family that such ruthlessness no longer works. It has certainly convinced the rest of the world: King Abdullah of Jordan is the first Arab leader to advise him to step down—but others doubtless think the same. More ominously for him, Iran, his cherished non-Arab ally, has apparently been in contact with the Syrian opposition. So, too, Turkey, an increasingly powerful player in the region. And even Russia and China are now beginning to criticise him obduracy.
Could offers to reform still save the day? It seems unlikely: Bashar’s proposals so far have been too little and too late—and in the meantime more and more of the armed forces are defecting and some are attacking the regime. Cassandra suspects that Bashar’s regime will not survive through 2012, and may not even survive through 2011.