x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Syria's opposition can help to push Assad off his cliff

The Syrian regime seems to have reached a glide state; it needs a push to fall. Is the opposition doing what it takes to topple the Baath party?

If violence is the Syrian regime's only tactic to quell the pro-democracy uprising, then the real question for the opposition boils down to this: how to topple the regime?

Throughout the seven months since the protests began, the Baathist regime has never shown that it is willing to halt its clampdown. Indeed, President Bashar Al Assad seems to be in a glide state; his regime's engines are shut down but it cruises on because it has not been knocked off course.

Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the newly-established Syrian National Council and a professor of political sociology at Sorbonne University in Paris, says the way the Baathist regime controls the country indicates that its collapse would be abrupt and unexpected.

But for the Syrian opposition to be successful, it must be geared up to push the regime off the edge when that moment arrives. It has yet to show the ability to do so.

The regime does not garner real popular support; its engine of control is the mukhabarat system. The mukhabarat - the term for the security departments and informants - is perceived in Syria to be omnipresent: in mosques, universities, taxis and even at people's weddings. This, and the potential costs for ordinary Syrians caught engaging in anti-regime activity, helps keep the army and officials loyal to the regime.

Once the mukhabarat loses its grip the regime will immediately fall. That is the theory at least.

But this is not a foregone conclusion. The Syrian regime will need a push to fall, and the opposition will need to act in a unified, collective way to send it tumbling. Yet it is not clear it will succeed.

On Friday, the opposition organised protests under the theme of "the army's free soldiers" to salute defected military personnel and to encourage more to do so. That is a misguided move for several reasons. First, disloyal soldiers and officers must remain within the regime's structure until they are ready to bring it down, if in fact they are.

But more importantly, given the current circumstances - including a lack of appetite for an international intervention akin to that in Libya - defected soldiers are more of a burden than an asset. They need weapons and certainly cannot face off with the regime's highly trained 4th Division and the Republican Guard. What's more, defection feeds into Mr Al Assad's propaganda that armed thugs are killing the civilians, not the regime.

Soldiers who have soured on the regime are a greater asset on the inside. When the regime reaches a state where it has nowhere to turn, those soldiers will play an important role in pushing it aside and protecting civilians from the regime's remaining claws.

Using soldiers to the advantage of the opposition, currently, will not be easy. The Syrian army, just like the country as a whole, is restrained by means of an intricate system of at least 17 amn - or security - departments. And each department is headed by a regime loyalist who reports to Mr Al Assad's small circle. In each military brigade, there is an embedded security officer who reports to his security department about the military officers and the brigade. The security forces also keep an eye on citizens either directly or through kuttab taqarir - informants.

Staying in uniform, whether of government officials or military personnel, would therefore be more valuable to the opposition's hope of eroding the regime from within. It would also encourage more to come on board; there is no doubt that many in the government or the military do not defect largely out of concern for their families, not necessarily for themselves. Those within the structure can provide information and act when the regime is fissured.

To be sure, the Syrian National Council will also need additional resources from inside Syria. That is why focusing on the council's makeup and governing structure, such as giving seats to opposition factions is another mistake by the council founders. There will be time to frame Syria's governing structure, but to do so now only creates divisions and undermines the movement.

Rather, the most pressing job for the council should be to work closely with the Local Board of Coordination, the major competing opposition force inside the country. Council members must stress that the downfall of the regime - by any means possible, short of violence - is the top priority.

The Assad regime is currently in a precarious position. The economic situation is worsening by the day and the economy will receive a heavy blow as the EU sanctions on oil imports take effect on November 15, costing the regime up to 50 per cent of its income. The regime has little room to manoeuvre in economic decisions; it had to reverse its ban on non-essential imports. Protesters are only growing in resilience. The pro-Assad loyalists lack the determination and audacity of the anti-regime protesters.

But these are all ingredients for a political stalemate or even an economic disaster, if the opposition does not press for the regime's downfall. Indeed, the top US diplomat to Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford, warned at the weekend that while not inevitable, civil war is increasingly possible.

Although the opposition has come a long way since protests began seven months ago, it has so far restricted its job to a PR campaign aimed at winning the trust of the Syrian people and exerting more international diplomatic and financial pressure on the regime. It needs to do more.

Mr Al Assad appears intent on holding on to power by continuing to slaughter protesters until the uprising is quelled. The only other way the violence will end is if his regime is toppled. This is his gamble. The opposition must now make one of their own, by actively seeking to bring the embattled regime to the edge from within and without, and then push it off the cliff when the time comes.



Follow him on Twitter @hhassan140