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January 26, 2012 Edition 4

The regime's prospects are better than two months ago but remain dim
Karim Emile Bitar

The Syrian revolution is now entering a new, more ominous phase. The regime has been considerably weakened and isolated. The Arab League's mission has ended in a fiasco. The economy is in tatters. The opposition's protests continue unabated. But the main pillars of President Bashar Assad's support are still holding on.

Articles in this edition
Yes and no - Elias Samo
A sinking ship - Michel Nehme
Syria's Assad regime is doomed, but the battle will be long and bloody - Joshua Landis
The regime's prospects are better than two months ago but remain dim - Karim Emile Bitar
The military and the security apparatus remain loyal to the regime, mostly for sectarian considerations. Assad can still count on significant popular support particularly among religious minorities, whose fears and existential angst have yet to be alleviated. There have been relatively few defections. Syria's two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have not joined the revolution, partly because of the close surveillance exerted by the thuggish "shabiha" militias--but also because of the vested interests of the Sunni business elites who have too much to lose and have not fully accepted the opposition's rationale.

Because the pillars bolstering his regime have not yet succumbed (and for a host of other reasons), Assad's prospects are better than they were two months ago. The Salafists' strong showing in the Egyptian elections was seen as vindication for the pro-Assad fallacious argument that the only alternative to authoritarianism is fundamentalism and religious kookery. The French-Turkish quarrel after France criminalized any denial of the Armenian genocide was welcomed by Syria. The US withdrawal from Iraq and the specter of a wide Sunni-Shiite "fitna" provides fodder for the regime's propaganda.

Also, the anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow increased Russia's fear of revolutionary contagion and act as an incentive for Putin to keep supporting Assad. That Libya risks moving towards a civil war, and that the post-Gaddafi authorities are still unable to collect weapons only highlights the risks of foreign interventions and of the militarization of a revolution. Facing threats and tougher sanctions, Iran is even more unlikely to distance itself from its only Arab ally. Finally, the Syrian opposition is still unable to overcome its divisions and offer a reassuring and coherent action plan.

All these factors reinforce Bashar Assad's delusions that he can cling to power if he only digs in his heels and waits for the storm to pass. Albeit with lesser talent, he's taking cues from his father's dictator's manual and is once again trying to gain time. He knows that 2012 is an election year in France, in the United States and in Russia and that a western military intervention is not on the agenda. He knows that an Iraq under increasing Iranian influence will soon take over Qatar's place at the head of the Arab League. Assad is still convinced that his regime can show resilience, at least in the absence of a US-Russian or US-Iranian grand bargain that would lead his two foreign patrons to pull the plug on him.

But will the old Baathist tradition of playing for time still work? There are reasons to question this. In the minds of vast segments of the Syrian population, the regime has already fallen and has lost all legitimacy. As US President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address, the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed. The proverbial wall of fear has been irreparably damaged. Many governmental institutions are crumbling. Erstwhile allies are leaving the ship and the mercurial Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is now backing the Syrian opposition. Several foreign heads of state, including those who previously supported Assad, have definitely lost patience and are determined to bring him down.

Most importantly, the economic situation is probably untenable. European Union sanctions preventing Syria from selling its oil are costing the country $450 million per month. Tax revenues are down 50 percent. The budget deficit has almost reached 20 percent of gross domestic product. The Syrian pound is under severe pressure. Foreign exchange reserves are rapidly depleting and are now estimated by many experts at less than $12 billion.

We have reached a situation where the regime is weakened and unable to quell the demonstrations--while at the same time the opposition is disorganized and unable to topple the regime. This tug-of-war led to calls for the militarization of the revolution and for foreign interventions.

A civil war would be catastrophic for Syria and would very likely destabilize Lebanon and possibly Iraq. A militarization of the revolution would empower the most radical elements, as it did in Libya, and render future democratization much more difficult. A foreign intervention would open Pandora's box.

Those who would like Assad to fall are now confronted with the old Machiavelli vs. Kant philosophical dilemma: does the end justify the means or do the means determine the end? A comprehensive study, published by Columbia University Press and analyzing dozens of past cases, suggests that the latter is true. It indicates that if a dictator is overthrown through peaceful struggle, there is a 51 percent chance of a successful democratic transition after five years. In case of an armed struggle, the chances are only three percent.

The Syrian opposition is understandably impatient to bring Assad down and breathe freely. It should nonetheless meditate on these figures.-Published 26/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Karim Emile Bitar is a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris and the editor of "L'ENA hors les murs" monthly magazine. He also published "Regards sur la France" (Seuil).

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