Can Assad's "Iron Fist" Be Broken?

Syria's Assad stood before a well-bribed crowd a couple of days ago at Damascus University defiantly blaming a conspiracy of "outsiders," "terrorists," "the international news media," the Arab League, along with his favored rogues' gallery of other perceived demonic forces for fomenting the nine month uprising against his despotic regime. I watched his churlish tirade on Arab television. It was a pathetic, delusional performance that squarely lands Assad in the pantheon of other deranged tyrants (think of Milosevic or Idi Amin). If there were such things as magic lamps, let alone divine interventions, the entire Assad brood would be handcuffed (better straight-jacketed) onto a one way flight to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to rot for the blood they have on their hands.

Tragically, as Amr al-Azm, a Syrian born Ohio university professor recently told the New York Times "Bashar's father's playbook said "shoot!" so they keep doing that." And over 6,000 Syrians have been killed, let alone the tens of thousands that have been rounded up, tortured or wounded in the regime's instigated violence. "Avaaz" -- a Syrian human rights group declared on January 5 that the regime is holding over 37,000 Syrians in secret detention centers. No other "Arab Spring" nation has endured this calamity, not Libya, not Yemen, and certainly not Egypt. Assad's vow to use an "iron hand" to crush his adversaries augurs more killings, hardship, and tragedy for the Syrian people.

Is there any way to "break" the regime's so-called "iron hand" short of outside Libya-style military intervention, which is just not in the cards for both practical military and diplomatic reasons? So far, there really is no light at the end of this tunnel....

1. The Hoodwinked Arab League Observer Mission

Early December, Assad signed an Arab League "peace" plan promising to end the violence, withdraw troops, and engage in negotiations with the Syrian National Council. For the past two weeks an overwhelmed and under-numbered contingent of unarmed Arab League monitors traipsed around Syria at the beck and call of Assad's handlers to monitor Assad's compliance with his promise to stop the shooting, yet over 400 more Syrians were murdered as the monitors stood helplessly by.

The monitors never had any plausible authority or wherewithal to stop the atrocities around them; their only job was to assess the regime's level of compliance with its pledge to the League; so the result speaks for itself.

Assad's verbal assault on the Arab League makes crystal clear he is just stalling and playing for time, rendering even a second, more enhanced monitor mission likely another fools' errand. The Arab League asked the UN for help to beef up the mission, but, with due respect to the Arab League's enterprise that was limited in scope in the first place, what, pray tell would a few more UN-issued helmets and flak jackets accomplish given how Assad just figuratively lobbed his shoe at the Arab League and welched on his own pledges to the League during the League's recently ineffective observer deployment? The regime tried to pull wool over the League by withdrawing a few token tanks from city centers and release a pitifully small number of detainees, but Syrian security snipers continued the rampage from the very roofs they were supposed to evacuate.

The League is supposed to issue its findings any day; which could set the stage for a more effective approach.

What should the Arab League now do? It is high time for the 22 member body to diplomatically call in their chits with Russia and China to cease their opposition to more effective UN-sponsored economic sanctions as well as impose their own economic sanctions on Syria which they committed to do in November:

  • A total trade blackout with Syria but for humanitarian relief supplies
  • Freezing all of Syrian assets in League member banks
  • A ban on transactions with the Syrian central bank

2. The Syrian Opposition

After an excruciatingly long impasse between them, the two main Syrian opposition groups: 1) The Syrian National Council (SNC)(representing exiles); and 2) The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (representing domestic opponents) finally got their act together penned an unity agreement in Cairo on December 30. Both groups declared they did not support a NATO-style military involvement in Syria, but did not preclude a home-grown Arab military solution, however unfeasible that sounds now.

Given the growing domestic agony, it is hard to imagine that the opposition can maintain its credibility with vast swaths of the Syrian people and withstand the pressure to call for direct military intervention much longer. But the fact that the two groups are finally talking with each other, not past each other, is a positive development.

But what is unity without a plan? OK, foreign military intervention a la NATO is out of the question, as least for now, but the opposition should seek common ground with the nascent Free Syrian Army (FSA) to ensure some level of control and coordination between the "political" and "military" wings of the opposition. This would include encouraging delivery of covert military supplies from Arab countries to its leader, Col. Riad al-As'aad, who is gaining recruits every day. The opposition should work quickly toward declaring a unified command structure with the FSA to further unnerve the regime. 3. Turkey

The Turkish government has yet to put its sanctions pedal to the metal against Assad despite all of the bravado emanating from Ankara in recent weeks. What gives? Turkish PM Erdogan took personal umbrage at Assad's betrayal of Turkish friendship, but has been a paper tiger when it comes to delivering a coup de grace against his turncoat neighbor to the south. True, Turkey has frozen certain assets owned by Assad cronies, ceased financial ties to the regime, and permitted the FSA to operate in a sheltered base inside Turkey, but Turkey could be doing far more, including suspending air links, cutting off power supplies, pouring more weapons into the hands of the FSA, and ending its import of Syrian oil.

Based on information received from several Middle East diplomatic sources, it turns out that during a January 4-5 visit to Tehran by Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu, Iranian President Ahmadinejad allegedly struck a quid pro quo with Turkey: in exchange for having Turkey host a meeting between the EU and Iran on the latter's illegal nuclear program, Turkey agreed not to impose new, unilateral economic sanctions on Iran's ward, Syria. By the way, for good measure, the peripatetic Davutoglu made clear that Turkey would not join the U.S. and the EU in imposing economic sanctions against Iran.

If Turkey willed it, it could seriously make a huge dent in Assad's longevity, but Turkey apparently has bigger fish to fry with Tehran, and Iran is determined to keep Assad in place at any cost.

All of this is to say that if one listened to his speech carefully, Assad and his cronies have apparently convinced themselves they still have the upper hand since more crippling UN Security Council sanctions are not in the cards anytime soon, and NATO sorties over Syria are a highly unlikely prospect. Moreover, the core of his regime's support among the mercantile class in the principal cities of Damascus and Aleppo has not bolted. The prospect for a civil war ironically helps Assad maintain control over the military (which is drinking Assad's foreign terrorists and conspirators Kool Aide), even though all around him the pillars of his regime are crumbling, and he has become a pariah in his own nation.

Sadly, unless the steps I outlined above are uniformly adopted by the respective parties able to do so, Assad could very well survive a lot longer at a terrible price to his own people. The prospect of a Syrian "wings up" party within the coming months seems remote, at best. Does anyone have a magic lamp handy?