- By Mona YacoubianMona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.
Six weeks into Syria’s unprecedented unrest, it seems increasingly apparent that the key cornerstones buttressing President Bashar al Assad’s regime — iron-fisted rule and geostrategic depth — may be irreparably damaged. While estimates are nearly impossible to confirm, the regime’s ruthless repression has reportedly left more than 500 dead. Yet, ongoing demonstrations signal that the "wall of fear" inside Syria is crumbling. Meanwhile, the regime’s crackdown is leading to Syria’s deepening isolation, undercutting its ability to leverage its role as a critical player in the region. Taken together, these developments suggest that the Assad regime may not be salvageable in the long run. It may withstand the current unrest, but the brutal tactics required to quell the demonstrations have not only destroyed any shred of legitimacy at home, but will also preempt any possibility of Western engagement. In seeking to preserve itself, the regime is laying the foundations for its ultimate undoing.
Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt. The regime’s unraveling will not occur over days or weeks with relatively limited violence. Nor is there a Syrian "Tahrir Square" or CNN’s Anderson Cooper covering the events as the world cheers on the protestors. Syria’s transformation will be far messier, marked by significant bloodshed and violence, and without the benefit of the international news media’s bright lights helping to protect the protestors. There may be little the international community can do to shape the outcome. It will not likely end for months, quite possibly much longer.
To date, there are only limited signs that the unrest has gained critical momentum. Syria’s uprising has centered in the countryside, starting in the sleepy southern border town of Dera’a and moving to the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia. But the unrest has not rocked Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and a stronghold of the Sunni merchant class. Nor has the capital Damascus witnessed huge protests in the tens of thousands. Despite unconfirmed reports of splits within the military, the Syrian army still appears intact and willing to obey orders. Defections of Baath party members and two members of Syria’s rubber stamp parliament suggest some small cracks in the regime apparatus, but high-level defections have not taken place.
Cracks in regime cohesion or a societal broadening of the demonstrations would constitute key tipping points. For example, a decision by Syria’s Sunni merchant class to join the protests would be a "game-changer." While they have thus far sat out the demonstrations, frustration may be growing as the Syrian economy grinds to a halt. Cross-border trade reportedly has slowed to a trickle. The widespread unrest has essentially shut down businesses, potentially spurring lay-offs in an economy already hobbled by high unemployment. As their financial interests become increasingly threatened, the Sunni business elite could calculate that the regime no longer represents their best interests.
The security services will likely remain loyal to the regime, but scattered reports of army troops refusing to fire on civilians could signal broader disaffection within the military. Moreover, the army may fray simply from the fatigue and stress of maintaining the current high state of alert, characterized by multiple checkpoints around the country. As the regime heightens its repression and is forced to rely increasingly on the army — as is now the case in Dera’a — these cracks may become more substantial.
Even without a critical turn of events that precipitates the regime’s downfall, Syria’s unrest marks a watershed event from which there is no return. The barrier of fear has been broken. Today’s Syria is a far cry from that of Hafez al Assad’s dictatorship when people were fearful of even uttering the word "politics" (as-siyassah), let alone engaging in open demonstrations. It is a very different Syria from even three months ago. As with so many other Arab countries, the alchemy of conditions propelling popular protests — pervasive corruption, a repressive regime, a frustrated and disproportionately young population, broad-based socioeconomic disaffection — are present in Syria, provoking unrest which will not be easily corked.
Thus far, Syrian President Bashar al Assad does not appear to have moved far along the learning curve. His hollow promises of change — most recently a lifting of nearly half a century of emergency rule — are belied by blatant brutality on the streets. Four weeks ago such a pledge would have been a deemed significant concession to the protestors and could have stanched the unrest. Instead, over the past few weeks, Assad has squandered important opportunities to implement genuine reform, opting to ratchet up brute force. Such moves have further enraged the demonstrators who insist on taking to the streets despite the inherent dangers, perpetuating the cycle of protest, regime repression and more protests. While Assad may have mistakenly drawn the lesson that Mubarak and Ben Ali caved early and simply needed to apply more force, he should instead consider the example of the Shah’s Iran, where repression simply fed more protests, alienating larger segments of the population who ultimately opted to abandon their leader. In the absence of genuine reform, massive, lethal repression will be required to put down the protests.
As a result, any basis for Western engagement with Syria has now vanished. While the Arab world and Iran have remained silent, lacking the courage to denounce Syria as they did with Libya, the Syrian regime’s brutal response has rightly earned it widespread, international condemnation. The United Nations Human Rights Council’s recent vote condemning Syria and calling for an investigation is just one example. New sanctions by the Obama administration will surely be followed by similar measures in Europe, currently considering an arms embargo and additional economic sanctions. The United Nations Development Program recently announced that it was postponing aid to Syria because of the violence. Even Turkey, a key Syrian ally and trading partner, is voicing concerns over Assad’s repressive tactics. Should Istanbul decide to disavow the Assad regime, a critical threshold would be crossed, marking Syria’s heightened isolation.
Unlike Iran, which has thus far managed its isolation, Syria does not possess the vast natural resource wealth necessary to sustain itself over a lengthy period as an international pariah. On the contrary, even prior to the current unrest, the Syrian economy was reeling from years of drought and economic mismanagement. Syria’s economic needs were a key impetus for its outreach to the West. Countries such as Russia and China likely will continue to resist calls for isolating Syria, and the conservative Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, could seek to buffer the Assad regime from collapse given their reflexive opposition to the popular unrest sweeping the region. Yet, it is not clear that these ties will be sufficient to compensate for any shortfall in foreign investment and increased economic isolation.
Not only has Assad’s harsh crackdown deprived him of any legitimacy at home, but these brutal tactics — if unabated — will cement his international isolation. Assad’s regime may survive the near-term unrest, but ultimately a severely isolated and heavily repressive Syria is unlikely to have any real longevity in the new Middle East.
Mona Yacoubian is a Senior Program Officer for the Middle East at the U. S. Institute of Peace.