The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Assad Still Winning Where It Counts Most

Although Assad’s control of Damascus is clearly under stress, the Syrian government continues to hold the line against efforts by protesters to overwhelm regime forces in the capital.  With pro-Assad crowds demonstrating that some remain supportive of the regime, and the security forces holding firm, the Assad dictatorship’s regime remains resilient and strong.

On the international level, the greatest challenge the regime now faces is from possible oil sanctions by the EU.  That would be a serious financial blow, but it is not clear that the sanctions would change facts on the ground in Syria.  The Arab League also appears to be gathering itself for some sort of remonstrance against Assad.  Assad, his Lebanese clients and his Iranian patrons will have little trouble resisting any suggestions proceeding from the League.

The chances of a Libya style UN resolution and western intervention appear slim.  Russia and China are about as likely to apply to become the 51st and 52nd states of the American union as they are to give NATO the chance to overthrow another Arab government anytime soon.  (This calculus could be changed, but it is unclear that anybody in the west is willing to pay the very high price that would be demanded in return.) Turkey, despite some tough words, also appears unwilling to move beyond tough talk.  Iran is not walking away from its most important ally.

The appetite for intervention in the west is also small.  Syria is almost infinitely more important to Midde East politics than Libya, and the appalling Syrian bloodbath is reaching levels that even Qaddafi would have struggled to match.  But neither the US nor the European allies are anxious to repeat the Libyan experiment, so the chances are high that Assad will be able to shoot as many of his people as he feels necessary without facing more than remonstrances and complaints from the “international community”.

Paradoxically, the intervention in Libya meant more deaths in Syria.  The western intervention and the Qaddafi defeat encouraged Syrian protesters to risk their lives, provided an unmistakable message to Assad and his cronies that their alternatives are victory or jail if not death, and exhausted the west and the Arab League’s political will to intervene.  The net result is that more demonstrators were eager to risk their lives, and the government was more willing to kill them.

Many things can still happen in Syria, but one scenario of many is beginning to look a little more probable: in the face of savage repression and continuing bloodshed the demonstrations slowly fade and an isolated, pariah regime in Syria clings precariously to power, more dependent than ever on Iran.

We are left with two questions.  Does the Syrian opposition have the strength and the staying power to topple the regime?  If not, will the US and its allies pivot from Libya to Syria and help put the opposition over the top whether through economic, political or, worst case, military measures?

Assad and Iran seem to think that the answer to both questions is “No.”  I wish I felt more confident that they are wrong.

Published on August 27, 2011 4:45 pm
  • Random Dude

    Pivot, pivot, pivot…

    Soon we’ll see: was POTUS a man with a plan, a pair, and some backbone who took advantage to clear out a bit of the trash in Libya, or just a clueless naïf bamboozled into an [ultimately successful] adventure concocted by others?

    This dude is personally rooting for the man with the plan: it would be sweet to see O nail up one more goon trophey on the wall during his first term…

  • higgins1990

    Syria borders Israel. If Syria falls, there is the chance of an Israeli-friendly government emerging. This is why Obama passively supports Assad, and tactfully (albeit hesitantly after France and GB punk’d us) focused on Libya. Libya isn’t a direct threat to Israel.

  • Omar Ibrahim Bakr

    The author fails to note that, despite widespread denunciation of his savage , unwarraned and unforgivable reprisal, Presdient Assad’s Syria still stands to many Syrians and Arabs as the the last OFFICIAL bastion of OFFICIAL Arab resistance to Israel and the USA!

    That is a factor long, deliberately ?, overlooked by USA media but will still weigh in the ultimate resolution of this tragic conflict.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Omar Ibrahim Bakr: actually, this point is quite well understood in the US, though for various reasons people think Assad is as hypocritical in this as he is in much else. The vaunted ‘Arab nationalism’ of the Syrian regime, like the rhetoric from Saddam Hussein, is seen in the US as a screen of hypocrisy intended to divert attention from the personalistic and sectarian characteristics of the dictatorships rather than as expressing a serious political intention. Most Arabs seem to agree.

  • Omar Ibrahim Bakr

    Walter Russell Mead
    Are we to understand from the above that you partake in the general American perception of Assad and the late Saddam ( hypocrisy intended to divert attention etc etc … )and that MOST Arabs agree with that ??
    (The stress here is about “MOST ARABS”.)
    Or is it that you do have your own evaluation of both ??

    However it is only to be expected that most Americans are bound to believe that with the unabbated US campaign, both official and media, against Arab leaders NOT particularly friendly with neither the USA nor with its favourite Israel.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Omar Bakr: There don’t seem to be all that many pro-Assad demonstrations demonstrating the deep love of the Arab masses for this ‘hero of resistance’ throughout the region. Or am I missing something?

  • Kris

    Give it time, Omar. Egypt might yet join/replace it.

  • Omar Ibrahim Bakr

    Walter Russell Mead
    Which answer, above,does NOT answer my straight forward question ” Are we to understand…etc”
    To contend that “Most Arabs ” agree with the American perception and depiction of the late Saddam and Bashar Al Assad is not only fool hardy but certainly is untenable