Now that the “Arab Spring” has reached the villages and cities of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has, within a few short weeks, met his most challenging obstacle since inheriting the presidency from his father eleven years ago.
Close to one hundred Syrian demonstrators have been killed by regime loyalists and security services over the past week and the reformist wave that originated in the small southern town of Daraa is now escalating into the suburbs of the country’s largest city. Assad has clearly learned from his fellow autocrats by hinting at concessions in the hopes of fracturing the protest movement. Hundreds of demonstrators who were detained since the unrest began were released and Assad’s spokeswoman promised reporters that the Syrian government would consider abolishing the hated 1963 emergency law.
For the United States, putting pressure on the Assad regime is a double edged sword. On the one hand, a downfall or substantial weakening of Assad would give Washington and its Arab allies a significant victory in the Middle East. Syria has long been Iran’s principle ally in the region (since 1979) and the Syrian government has made Israel’s life difficult by pouring money and logistical support into armed Islamist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
At the same time, a post-Assad Syria could very well lead to a number of negative contingencies, all of which could jeopardize the Arab democracy movement.
For starters, Assad and most of his advisors in the military and security forces are Alawites, a small sect of Shia Islam that is a minority in the broader Syrian population. Sunnis, who make up more than 70 percent of the population, have been browbeaten and sidelined by the Assad family for over forty years. A sudden removal of Assad and his Alawite dominated regime could ignite a sectarian conflict between Sunnis tired of sitting on the sidelines and Syria’s minorities who have gotten used to governing the state and enjoying the privileges of power.
Therefore, while the United States would surely like to see one another Middle East troublemaker in the dustbin of history, the Obama Administration should think twice about taking steps to further Assad’s demise. A no-fly zone over Syria in order to protect civilians is out of the question, for the measure would include the bombing runs and cruise missile attacks that continue in Libya today. These actions may have been tolerated on the periphery of the Arab world but it will not be supported by any Arab state in the very heart of the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already ruled out a Libya style intervention in Syria. Surprisingly, Clinton commented that a number of American officials in Congress regarded Assad as a reformer — a sign to opposition Republicans that the administration will not pressure Assad in the same forceful way as it did Muammar Gaddafi. Despite Clinton’s assertion, Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman are not backing down from their earlier statements in support of an American response.
There is a divide in the American government as to what the official policy toward Syria’s brutality should be. As the violence ramps up, that divide will only widen and calls for a humanitarian intervention (from both Democrats and Republicans) will likely increase.
However difficult from a political standpoint, the White House has to refrain from using the Libya scenario as a precedent. Assad and his fellow Alawites will not willingly seize power without a fight. And that fight will be just a bloody as the battle in Libya, but far more troubling strategically.