x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

To topple Assad, show defectors way to the door

Encouraging high-level defections in Syria is a daunting challenge, but now seems to be the most promising way to dislodge Bashar Al Assad.

When Hafez Al Assad seized power in Syria in 1970, he applied all of his considerable cunning to making himself as coup-proof as possible. This was a formidable challenge: starting with a US-backed coup in 1949, Syria had endured a long series of abrupt regime changes.

The system he built haunts Syria still. His son Bashar Al Assad, president since 2000, has been able to withstand a year of growing protests largely because his various security forces monitor each other, in a "silo" system. Each is controlled by members of Al Assad's Alawite sect; an estimated 80 per cent of army officers are Alawites, though the group makes up only 12 per cent of the population.

As protesters keep dying, it has become steadily clearer that short of civil war, the only way for Syrians to obtain a more just, responsive government will be to erode the pillars of Assad family power; that is, to induce both Alawite and other loyalists to split with the regime.

An unknown number of enlisted soldiers have indeed defected to the Free Syrian Army, but there have been few known high-level turncoats: A brigadier general, Mustapha Al Sheikh, fled to Turkey early this year (and claimed that the army is near collapse). Deputy oil minister Abdu Husameddine has denounced Mr Al Assad via YouTube. Former defence minister Mustafa Tlass went this week to France, reportedly after a dispute with the president's brother-in-law, but one of Mr Tlass's sons continues to serve in the Syrian military.

The Syrian National Council claims that additional highly placed officials will be abandoning Mr Al Assad soon. It's not implausible: mid-level apparatchiks know that when the regime does finally go, the Al Assads and others at the very top will retire in affluent comfort wherever they can find refuge, while those more modestly placed and with fewer resources will face public wrath or the International Criminal Court (ICC). Referral to the world body is no longer an idle threat, as the ICC proved yesterday with its conviction of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga.

The world community, seemingly impotent against continuing murders in Syria, does have ways to encourage high-level defections: a Wall Street Journal columnist has suggested, for example, that the promise of US or other western visas for high-level defectors would be effective. For front-line military commanders, the threat of ICC prosecution could prove persuasive. As we have argued before, one essential step is for opposition leaders of all stripes to promise to refrain from sectarian reprisals under the next government.

Carrots and sticks, skilfully used, have the power to topple the regime with much less pain than rifles and grenades.