Shadow Government

The desperation of Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad is desperate. I say this because all of the problems he faces related to the Syrian uprising have forced him to show up in public for only the fourth time since his troubles began. He "surprised" a pro-government rally on Wednesday, family in tow (who had been rumored to have left the country), ...

DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

Bashar al-Assad is desperate. I say this because all of the problems he faces related to the Syrian uprising have forced him to show up in public for only the fourth time since his troubles began. He "surprised" a pro-government rally on Wednesday, family in tow (who had been rumored to have left the country), defiantly defending his actions and insisting again that he faces an externally-inspired and led conspiracy. He took the bold step of mocking and attacking the Arab League’s observer mission to end his government’s slaughter of civilians, after ignoring their admonishments he make good on his pledges to reform the government. These are not the actions of a confident dictator who is assured of suppressing a revolt. These are the actions of an ophthalmologist-turned-dictator who can’t maintain his regime’s stability the way his father could.

Granted, Bashar does not have his father’s advantages: Hafez al-Assad readily and ruthlessly killed tens of thousands of his own people in a world with no interference from the international community, no Arab Spring and no fresh examples of fallen Arab dictators. Bashar has seen a gurney-bound Mubarak in the dock and a bleeding Gaddafi hauled out of a culvert and summarily shot to death. While Hafez knew a world where Arab dictators die of stomach cancer or are ousted by coups, Bashar knows one where they are overthrown by chaotic and protracted popular movements sometimes led by thousands of armed civilians and then put on trial or assassinated.

He now faces an uprising that has lasted months and is being led by mutinous soldiers with weapons and thousands of angry citizens who have built up 40 years of hate and desire for revenge against a regime formed by a religious minority. His neighbors no longer acquiesce in the regime’s cruelty, and the once complacent Arab League has been moved because of the Arab Spring to act for the good of Arabs instead of simply for Arab leaders.

But he has advantages, beleaguered though he is. The U.S. is not interested in another intervention as in Libya, and Russia and China are unwilling to allow the UN Security Council to impose serious sanctions. (But the Russian assistance is not as powerful as his dad could count on: recently a Russian ship laden with arms was caught off Cyprus and meekly changed course away from its intended delivery port in Syria.)

But he has one other important advantage: the incompetence and fecklessness of the Arab League. As noted above, the League has finally risen to the challenge before it to demonstrate that Arab leaders understand that the world is changing and their people are increasingly less willing to abide tyranny. That is a good thing, no matter their true motivation for this new sensitivity to basic human rights. Yet it cannot seem to pull off an observer mission that should be able to accomplish its goals. Instead of stating those goals clearly — interpose themselves between the Syrian government and civilians to stop the killing and bring pressure on al-Assad to enact reforms — and maintaining an orderly and firm public presence, the mission is falling apart, bickering, and suffering defections. Some observers are quitting Syria altogehter, understandably because they are being targeted by the pro-government forces — a French reporter has even been killed; others are leaving because they are disillusioned by their failure to achieve anything but derision. It doesn’t help that a Sudanese general heads the observer mission; leave it to autocrats to be so ham-handed.

So it appears that while al-Assad is emboldened and determined to wipe out the revolution and stay in power as his dad would have done, even stepping up the killings as his many domestic and international opponents are roused to stop him, that might all be the last ditch effort of a desperate dictator. His counselors have no interest in compromise even if he perceives one. They lose everything as privileged elites based on an armed religious minority if they blink. So perhaps his strategy now is simply to follow the age-old approach of "desperate times call for desperate measures:" put on the bravest of fronts and attack the rebels, attack the neighbors and attack the international community. Double down on the violence and the rhetoric.

Let’s hope his targets smell his fear and respond in kind with all the measures available to vindicate the Arab Spring.

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