x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Assad's overreach pushes former allies into a corner

Recent comments by Turkey and Saudi Arabia are crowding Syria's Bashar Al Assad into a corner. But there is no evident end-game.

Hama was one massacre too many for Syria's President Bashar Al Assad. In recent days, Turkey, the GCC and the Arab League have condemned Damascus, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors. It didn't need to be that way. Yet Syria's regime, awash in brutality, has not lacked in hubris either.

For months Syrian security forces have been slaughtering protesters at will, with no response from the Arab world. So Mr Al Assad could be forgiven for imagining that he might get away with his assault on Hama, on the eve of Ramadan. But as the Syrian president has shown on several occasions, in Lebanon above all, he frequently sins by gambling a round too many.

GCC silence on Syria was a consequence mainly of Saudi reluctance to favour the Syrian revolt, because of concern that the shockwaves might destabilise the kingdom. With crises in Yemen and Bahrain as well as an uncertain transformation in Egypt, the Saudis had less time to focus on Syria. This attitude became untenable when the Syrian death toll rose and Mr Al Assad proved unable to crush his foes.

The Hama massacre put the Saudis on the spot. The kingdom could not continue to avert its eyes from what many in the region now view as the repression of a Sunni majority by Syria's Alawite minority. For King Abdullah, such a perception threatened to undermine his unofficial role as paramount Sunni figurehead in the Arab world and champion of the faith.

There is also the symbolism of Hama. In the interpretation of many Islamists, the carnage in the city three decades ago under Hafez Al Assad marked a key moment in the snuffing out of a Sunni revival in Syria. To allow another such calamity today was difficult for Riyadh, both symbolically and because it might have led to radicalisation among Islamists that could ultimately blow back against the Saudis themselves.

More prosaically, the Saudis and their Gulf partners, like Turkey, have plainly concluded that the policies pursued by the Assad regime are not only failing, they are heightening regional volatility in dangerous ways. The Syrian leader was quietly given time and room to put his house in order, but couldn't deliver. This now permits Saudi Arabia to review its options and look at how it might use Mr Al Assad's exit to its own advantage.

Turkey has taken a more roundabout path to the same conclusion. Before the Turkish elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was highly critical of the Assad regime's behaviour, particularly after the military campaign in Idlib province that forced thousands of Syrians to flee into Turkey. At the same time the Turks are said to have proposed that the defence minister, Gen Ali Habib, an Alawite, head a transitional committee after Mr Al Assad's departure. This was turned down by the Assads. The general's dismissal on Monday, a day before Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived in Damascus to deliver a rebuke to the Syrian president, could have been an irrevocable rejection of the Turkish plan - a way of saying that it's either the Assads or chaos.

Now Turkey is bracing for the repercussions. Mr Davutoglu left Damascus moderately optimistic that Mr Al Assad would implement reforms, but the absence of specifics was worrying. Thousands of Syrian refugees remain in Turkey and the Assad regime's tactics make it more likely that Syria will dissolve into ethnic-sectarian conflict. Fragmentation might lead to de facto autonomy for Syria's Kurds, which could affect Turkey's Kurdish community. Moreover, in the event of civil war, Alawites in Turkey's Hatay province might demand intervention on behalf of their Syrian brethren.

With the regional doors slamming shut, the options are narrowing for Mr Al Assad. There is no military answer to his regime's problems. Even the method the Syrians have traditionally adopted to protect themselves, namely wreaking havoc in their neighbourhood to negotiate advantageous resolutions, has been virtually neutralised. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has backed the Assad regime, fearing the emergence of a Sunni-dominated Syria to Iraq's west; while Lebanon, a perennial outlet for Syrian power games, is governed by a coalition sympathetic to Mr Al Assad. Syria can convey limited warnings through both countries, but cannot readily subvert their civil peace.

The Assads also benefit from Iranian assistance in their bid to stay in power. Yet even Tehran and its Lebanese ally Hizbollah appear to be preparing for a post-Assad Syria. According to a recent news story in France's Le Figaro, Hizbollah has moved its arsenal of weapons hidden in Syria back to Lebanese soil. It is doubtful that the party will provoke a war with Israel to earn the Assad regime breathing space, or take measures against the Sunnis that lead to sectarian strife in Lebanon. Hizbollah will not commit suicide for the Assads.

If all looks bleak for Mr Al Assad and his illegitimacy as president is beyond question, one thing is equally true: there is no clear transition plan for Syria. Unless the Alawites can be divided and induced to abandon the Assads, they will pursue their panic-stricken scheme of suppression as a step toward communal survival. Now is the time for diplomacy to chip away at the Syrian regime's resilience. The hard part will be to avert a sectarian war, the Assads' last bullet.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle