The year-long anniversary of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria this week reveals why such regimes have persisted for so many decades in the Arab world, and also why they are doomed to collapse. We now see more clearly the four trends that have defined Syria since March 2011: the continued expansion, intensity and sophistication of the domestic populist uprising against the regime; the regime’s sustained use of brutal force against the nonviolent demonstrators and the militants who are trying to topple it; the erratic nature and impact of the political opposition abroad; and, the perplexity of the outside world about how to react to the events in the country.
The paradox of such regimes is that their use of military power against their own people allows them to remain in office for many years, but ultimately it also brings about their downfall. When the Syrian armed forces are deployed against their own citizens for an entire year, and supplemented by the use of killer bands and snipers, this is a sure sign of something gone very wrong in this self-styled heartland of Arabism. The question of whether the demonstrators or the regime would tire first is now settled, given the deployment of massive military power against cities like Homs and Idlib in recent weeks. The demonstrators and small bands of armed militants cannot realistically stand up to the Syrian army’s assaults, and consequently the regime seems to have quelled the revolts in some parts of the country for the moment.
However, the consequences of this regime survival strategy of killing and attacking entire neighborhoods will be reflected in the radicalization of tens of thousands of Syrians who might otherwise have stayed on the sidelines. Seeing their cities under siege, their neighborhoods bombed to rubble, and their family members killed or tortured causes a whole new generation of anti-regime activists to come into being. The absolute number of Syrians who are now actively working to topple the Assad regime is much higher than it was a year ago, though for the moment they are out of the streets and working in other ways to achieve their goal.
The street confrontation equation was always clearly in favor of the regime, once it decided to unleash the power of the military against the demonstrators. The other elements in the equation of the forces for and against regime durability remain confused. The sustained diplomatic pressure by regional parties — mainly Arabs and Turks — has isolated the Damascus government diplomatically, without bringing about its collapse. The continuing international economic and political sanctions have had the same impact. The various Syrian opposition groups abroad have generated considerable news and discussion, but no real pressure on the regime to date. The Free Syrian Army and other armed groups that oppose the government play the same role on the military front — opposition without achieving regime change. The activities of multilateral organizations — mainly the Arab League and the United Nations — have been striking for both their vitality and their lack of impact at the same time.
We now see more accurately why this kind of regime has remained in power for 43 years in Damascus. It is willing to use the national armed forces and budget to keep itself in power, regardless of the cost at home or in diplomatic relations abroad. As its circle of diplomatic, military and economic supporters shrinks steadily, so do its options to get out of the corner it is in. Few if any credible Syrian opposition groups will negotiate with the Assad regime, other than negotiating the departure of the regime. Unilateral steps, like the recent referendum and the announced upcoming elections, lack credibility. Economic conditions are becoming more difficult by the day for most Syrians, and could prove to be the most serious vulnerability of the regime in the months ahead.
It is difficult to see how Assad and his ruling partners can use political dialogue and reform to escape the pressure and isolation they now experience. The Kofi Annan mission is intriguing because it is based on promoting precisely such dialogue. It is possible that enough opposition groups will agree to dialogue if they feel that this is the best way to remove the Assad family from office, while street activism is blocked for the moment due to the massive deployment of the armed forces. The Assad ruling elite will not enter into a dialog that is designed to evict it from power.
The basic stalemate in Syria continues, while the costs are increasing all around, in terms of dead and injured, refugee and displaced persons flows, economic and diplomatic stress, and regime isolation. We are likely to witness this trend for some months more, until one of the weak points in this equation snaps, which is inevitable sometime this year.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global