mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Battle For Syria: Assad Winning on Streets, Losing in Suites

The Syrian crisis is deepening but we seem no closer to the end.

The momentum of Syrian street protests seems to have fallen off given the government’s willingness to use extraordinary levels of force.  While the security forces haven’t been able to stop dissidents from protesting, they appear for now to be effective at limiting the size of protests. The prospect that an unstoppable mass wave of largely peaceful protest would drive the regime from power has, for now, dimmed.

But if bloody repression on the streets checked advances of his domestic opponents, Assad faces an increasingly strong and tight external opposition.  Yesterday the King of Saudi Arabia jointed leaders from all over the world calling for an end to the violence and recalled his ambassador from Damascus.

Assad’s core strength is that, so far at least, enough of the security forces remain loyal that he is able to meet specific protests and challenges with overwhelming force. He also benefits from the cohesion of interests around him; in Egypt and Tunisia the establishment was able to separate its interests from the dynasty.  In Syria that is much less the case; most of those close to the throne believe that they fall when Assad does.

His core weakness is that the Sunni world outside Syria hates him almost as much as his opponents inside the country hate him.  The polarization of the Middle East into sectarian blocs (among the most important consequences of the US invasion of Iraq) turned Assad from a fiery Arab nationalist into an agent of Persian, Shi’a power.  Many Sunnis, including some in governments around the region, believe Assad’s weakness offers a welcome chance to frustrate Iran’s effort to consolidate the ‘Shi’a crescent’ running from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.

As religious and geopolitical considerations merged, the US, Turkey, the Sunni Arabs and the EU have all turned against Assad, just as they were all against Qaddafi. The brutality of the crackdown in Syria destroyed what was left of Assad’s legitimacy in the Arab world, and made it possible for authorities in countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to burnish their own credentials by turning against him.

The international coalition against him will not use force — at least at this time.  If Assad can crush the internal opposition the regime may linger for quite a while.  But the movement toward an international front against Assad largely nullifies the gains the regime’s brutality has made on the ground.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy has some thoughts on this as well; the end game looks bloody and complicated, and many more people are likely to die before Syria finds a stable new system.

Features Icon
show comments
© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service