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Assad's Survival Plan

Butcher Assad as history will probably name him has had a good first week of Ramadan.  Yes, scores and maybe hundreds of innocent Syrians died in the streets, the Assad dynasty is now cordially hated throughout the Sunni Arab world, violence at home is continuing, the diplomatic isolation of Syria deepens by the day, sanctions are beginning to bite and the economic outlook is not good.

On the other hand, Assad still holds power in Damascus, which from his point of view is infinitely the most important thing, and his strategy to keep things that way seems to be working.

Judging from his actions, Assad believes that the key to survival is to keep the domestic protests contained.  To achieve this with a limited and in parts unreliable army he seems to be attacking the centers of protest one at a time.  He lets protests simmer in some cities while brutalizing the main target, then turns from that target to the next. This approach, ghastly and brutal as it is, seems to be working at present and time is probably on his side.

The question is whether forces outside Syria — the liberal west, angry Sunnis, ‘world public opinion’ whatever that is — can somehow shift the balance of power inside the country.  Assad thinks they can’t.  His calculation is that Libya has killed the appetite of the Atlantic powers for new humanitarian wars in the Middle East.  Britain and France are up to their eyeballs in an unsustainable military commitment, and the Obama administration is too weak and too busy to do much more than talk. Americans talk a lot; Assad and his father have ignored American lectures and advice for decades.  Russia and China will block military action at the UN even if anyone was asking; NATO’s reckless and cynical mandate-stretching in Libya has closed that door for a long time to come.

Sunni rage is as impotent, Assad believes, as the liberal west.  Saudi Arabia can bribe but to little effect.  Egypt is in no position to look beyond its frontiers.  From his point of view, the Sunni Arab world is as impotent against Iran as it is against its other hate objects: Israel and the United States.  The Sunnis and the west huffed and puffed but they weren’t able to turf Assad out of Lebanon and they won’t get him out of Damascus.

That leaves Turkey; the impotence of the Sunni Arabs combined with Turkey’s shift away from secularism offers Prime Minister Erdogan the chance to reprise the role of the Ottoman sultans and become a kind of de facto caliph: the protector of the Sunni Arab world.  Assad believes that Turkey will talk rather than strike; the costs of chaos on its southeastern frontier are too high.  More, Assad believes that Iran will offer whatever he needs to balance the Turks.

As for sanctions, and isolation, he can wait them out for decades if he must.  Iran will help him financially and China and Russia can help him shelter his money.

This is his calculation and so far he’s been right.  We shall see if that lasts.

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  • teapartydoc

    Tell me what the difference is between the guy in Yemen that our government keeps trying to assassinate, and Basher of Asses? Is it because the guy in Yemen is less effective in prosecuting a terror war against the US and its allies and is being punished for his relative ineffectiveness? Maybe the guy in Yemen needs to get his act together. If he can prove himself more capable, maybe our government will turn its attention on [Assad].

  • Tom Billings

    Turkey will do nothing but talk, because their government has imprisoned or driven to resignation exactly those people who would plan and execute any military action against Assad. Still, they might fall into a disaster there, trying to use their decapitated military as though it were whole. That disaster would give Assad, and Iran, far greater legitimacy.

    As Claire Berlinski has noted, the primary ideology in Ankara today is not islamism, but fantasy. Erdogan cannot admit his own constraints, because the only way out of them would mean he must stop centralizing power in his own Party. They have little or no continuity with the Ottoman past, because Attaturk’s reform of the Turkish alphabet denies them the ability to even read the Ottoman diplomatic correspondence about Iran, much less about their Syrian client. They are walking blindly.

    The Syrians are on their own,….may they have the courage to free themselves.

  • AD

    Where is Lawrence when you need him?

  • Earl E. Teetyme

    “Where is Lawrence when you need him?” He’d probably be playing house with his life partner somewhere in the vicinity of San Franpsycho.?

  • ThomasD

    The Sunnis, and the US are the devils Assad knows, he’s seen how to deal with them his whole life. As your breakdown shows, there simply are no significant unknowns, perhaps with the single exception of his own military.

    Which might be a problem for Assad, but neither would it be a solution for the rest of Syria.

  • Jones

    ASSAD knows all he has to do is keep killing and hold power until the rebellion runs out of steam. No one else will challenge him- the West is too weak-willed. The only question is how many dead bodies will it take for [him] to get from here to there.

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