x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The weight of Syria's violence will inevitably topple Assad

For now, Bashar Al Assad seems to remain sturdily in power. But the violence he has used on his people has doomed him; it's just a matter of a little time.

President Bashar Al Assad has succeeded in crushing the popular revolt against his rule. That, at least, is the new consensus in the media. One writer will say that activists are losing hope in their campaign to unseat Mr Al Assad; another will say that the regime can stay in power for years. More cautious voices talk about "a transition to democracy", as if that were possible with the Assad regime in power.

The regime has made a series of advances on the ground, reclaiming areas seized by the Free Syrian Army. While the regime pretends that it is pulling back its forces ahead of next week's ceasefire, it is trying to consolidate its gains by shelling cities. The continuing support of Russia has led to a diplomatic victory as well, with the embarrassingly weak UN Security Council statement last month, which politely asked Damascus to halt hostilities.

To entrench these military, media and diplomatic gains, Damascus has launched a rhetorical blitzkrieg, starting this week with a statement by the foreign ministry that "the battle to topple the state is over". The regime's few remaining friends - Iran, Hizbollah and even Iraq - all dutifully parroted the same line. On Wednesday, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Mr Al Assad would not fall even if the opposition were "armed to the teeth".

Of course, most of the people that the Assad regime kills are not armed at all.

"Khilsat", finished, the crisis is over, the regime has announced several times. But the popular revolt is far from over. Armchair commentators, now used to the relatively fast-paced revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, do not have the attention span needed as Syria endures its own protracted struggle.

But given the events that have happened, the Assad regime will - inevitably - fall.

What constitutes "victory" in this context? As long as the Baathist regime faces a serious challenge to its rule, it can never win. A counterexample can be seen in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, when Hizbollah "won" after Israel's onslaught. The victory was not actually winning on the battlefield, but simply forcing Israel to end the war without accomplishing its goal of seriously weakening the militia.

It is not enough for Mr Al Assad to simply survive. He must stay in power, restore calm and then rule unchallenged as he once did. And that is not possible.

Nearly 10,000 people have been killed - that is, thousands of families had a member who has been killed. Tens of thousands have been displaced or become refugees in other countries. More than 40,000 people have been jailed, many of whom have been tortured. And every day, more Syrians are openly defying the regime through activism inside the country and abroad. Toppling the Baathist regime has simply become a just cause.

Thousands of soldiers and officers have defected and now form an armed resistance. Civilians from the towns and cities that have suffered under the ruthless clampdown are joining those forces. These fighters can never go back. They know the only alternative is execution.

At the beginning of the uprising last year, the regime sought to justify its murders by pretending the civilian protests were militarised. It was a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy. It will prove to have been much easier to force people to pick up arms than to force them to lay them down. The empty rhetoric about the opposition disarming disregards why Syria's revolution became militarised - semi-official thugs were systematically torturing and killing men, women and children.

Even the regime must know this situation is not sustainable. It may hope to use Kofi Annan's six-point plan, which includes a ceasefire and dialogue, to force defectors to lay down arms and weaken the opposition. But it is just a question of time before the mission is declared a failure. Until it falls, the regime will never halt the violence because it knows it would be overwhelmed by protests. And increased violence, as we have seen over the 13 months of protests, only fuels the agitation.

Why would the regime genuinely accept a ceasefire plan when it still faces a challenge? The Assads and their supporters had a much stronger grip on the country last year, and yet still had to resort to violence.

Another important consideration is the economic sanctions. At the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul this week, a gathering of representatives from 83 countries, the group announced a strengthened sanctions strategy to bring more pressure on the regime. Sanctions will continue to weaken the regime and affect its support base, which is more passive than loyal.

Sanctions are "suffocating" Syrian society, as The National's Damascus-based columnist Jasmine Roman explained this week. The effects are felt in everything from living expenses and unemployment to travel restrictions. The regime's opponents are willing to endure the pain; its supporters are much more likely to complain.

The opposition Syrian National Council, on the other hand, is gaining more recognition. The council is expected to overhaul its organisation to include more forces within the opposition in the next two weeks. That would lead to further recognition and support at the next Friends of Syria summit planned for Paris. The opposition is changing its tactics. Instead of occupying a certain area, it has become more mobile and is prepared for a long-term guerrilla war.

Over the past two months, the morale of Syrian activists and their supporters has fallen. The political opposition has been divided, the regime has shelled Baba Amr and other hot spots into submission, and the world's inability to intervene has become clear. But Syrians do not share the commentators' despair and lethargy. They are determined to topple the regime and they are bound to prevail.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140